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Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around ***

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

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JOHNNY CASH: American IV: The Man Comes Around

Johnny Cash's "Man Comes Around," his fourth collaboration with legendary hip-hop producer Rick Rubin, follows the same formula as the three previous installments in their American series, mixing original compositions ("Give My Love to Rose," "Tear Stained Letter") with an eclectic selection of covers (Sting's "I Hung My Head," "Danny Boy").

Once again, Rubin strips the music down to its barest essentials, and his strategy pays off: Cashs deeply moving baritone brings out the haunting beauty in the Nine Inch Nails ballad "Hurt," while his elegant rendition of the Eagles classic "Desperado" -- a duet with Don Henley, no less -- benefits from a touch of rugged, country-western cool.

Elsewhere, the Man in Black sounds a bit gray around the edges. Cash stumbles through a clumsy, dispassionate take on the Beatles' "In My Life," and his duet with Nick Cave on the Hank Williams chestnut "Im So Lonely I Could Cry" is labored, with Cave's vocals drowning in Rubins arrangements.

Meanwhile, the originals are uniformly strong: "Tear Stained Letter" is a rollicking toe-tapper in the tradition of "Big River," and "Give My Love to Rose" is the catchy lament of a sad cowboy. But the title track represents Cash's most compelling work since 1994's American Recordings, as he returns to his gospel roots with a vengeance. -- Rossiter Drake

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