It might not sound like it makes sense on the surface, but a convincing case could be made for the most genuine tribute albums being those which rely on deep cuts from the celebrated artist’s catalogue. How else would the songs get collected together that way if not because the artists involved weren’t undying fans themselves? Such an argument comes to light when one considers the 5 Minutes To Live 12-inch EP by JoeCephus and the George Jonestown Massacre.
Here, a set of four Johnny Cash songs have been culled from the artist’s expansive catalogue and are performed as only Joey “JoeCephus” Killingsworth and his band of cohorts (including Butthole Surfers alumnus JD Pinkus, Melvins commander Buzz Osborne, drummer “Fluke” Holland – who actually played with Cash for a while – and Warren Ellis of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) can do it: a little scruffy, pretty dirty and slightly terrifying. It’s a weird set certainly, but also an interesting experiment.
Even if listeners are expecting something a little out of the ordinary from 5 Minutes To Live, they’ll still be shocked by what they hear from the moment “The Losing Kind” opens the A-side of the EP. There, Pinkus steals the mic and steps to the front front of the band, but the sound is still more startling than one can imagine. Crooning out a surprisingly true-toned performance, Pinkus unrolls this tale of a luckless man that is so dark that one has to laugh (how else does one quantify a lyric like, “I’d shoot myself, but I lost my gun”?) and the band delivers a sparkling, clean country & western gem.
At no point do listeners get the sense that “Losing Kind” isn’t just a straightforward, obscure country hit, and that’s partially what’s so shocking about it. You may find yourself continually expecting someone or something to pull the rug out from under the proceedings to reveal a figurative bed of angry scorpions or something, but that never happens.
The same is true of the Mick Harvey (of The Bad Seeds and Birthday Party) helmed murder ballad “Five Minutes To Live”. The sweetness of Harvey’s vocal tone implies that he could easily have had a career in Nashville and, as he makes his way through the song flawlessly, leaves listeners believing that he may yet – if he so chose.
The B-side of this EP gets no more normal than the A- was, but there’s no question that the sound and presentation starts to feel more lived-in than unsettling, as it continues. For “The Sound Of Laughter,” Killingsworth finally steps to the mic and delivers a very sparely adorned and dark ballad (Warren Ellis plays violin on the song and it gets pretty haunting when there proves to be little more than that about it) which will throw a chill through a body in much the same way the Butthole Surfers’ “Creep In The Cellar” did. Even on first listen, those who approach the song with the words above in mind will simply say, “’Nuff said.” There’s just no other way to quantify the sensation that “The Sound Of Laughter” leaves in its wake; it’s creepy.
… And then, as if in climax to this strange little creation, Buzz Osborne takes the foreground of these proceedings for a rendition of “Long Black Veil” which sounds as little like “a performance by the lead singer of The Melvins” as anyone could possibly expect. Here, Osborne abandons his normally deep and almost operatic vocal style and just sort of wheezes out the song’s lyrics(truly – he often sounds as though he’s gasping for dramatic effect as he goes, or like he’s building up to a howl), and that serves as a great foil again for the meticulous and clean country strains which back him. It’s a little eerie too because, if he added any guitar at all to the song, it’s really understated. In fact, “Long Black Veil” comes across like a flawless, classic country song – just with a decidedly “un-country” singer in front, trying to do the music justice.
“And does the EP succeed?” you ask. “Does it do the spirit of Johnny Cash a service?” Yes it does reader – but not on what one would assume to be Johnny Cash’s terms. The spirits of country music as well as Johnny Cash’s perennial desire to challenge the normally staid beliefs and tastes of country fans are both here, and it’s really easy to enjoy the music – as long as one tries to do it on those terms. Those listeners who can do that will probably call 5 Minutes To Live “challenging” while those who can’t will the EP a “travesty.” Either way, it’s definitely interesting and worth hearing – even if only once.
The 5 Minutes To Live EP is out now. Buy it here, directly from Saustex Media: www.saustex.com/JOECEPHUS—THE-GJM.html.