Rules of Travel (Capitol)

Rosanne Cash 

Rules of Travel (Capitol)

Can a record be too consistent? If the record is Rosanne Cash's Rules of Travel, her first fully realized album in a decade, the answer is yes. Producer John Leventhal, Cash's husband and the Shawn Colvin confederate who guided that singer to a commercial, Grammy-courting sound, sands away what grit remained after Cash's glossy-but-bossy 1993 effort The Wheel. Leventhal, who handles most of the instrumental duties, has furnished Cash with a de facto Colvin album, a tasteful, manicured, intermittently catchy set of backing tracks suitable for faintly romantic lyrical ruminations and play over the loudspeakers of subdued retail outlets like Barnes & Noble. Travel makes Bonnie Raitt's recent albums sound like Muddy Waters.

The Cash on Travel's odd cover, an Annie Leibovitz portrait airbrushed into anime and set against a scene of stormy seas claiming a ship, looks like she's waiting for Fabio. The Cash of Travel's songs sounds like she's waiting, too -- bored, distracted. Her voice, recovered after a silencing bout with polyps, remains lovely, but Cash doesn't inhabit these songs, even the handful she wrote alone. (Nor does she convey much relief at reclaiming her voice.) Leventhal's deep-green production might be Astroturf, but Cash never tries to find the dirt under it, never even kicks off her shoes.

A few passages disturb Travel's calm surface. On the discontented waltz "44 Stories," Cash's quiet seethes rather than snores. And Johnny Cash's guest vocal (I cannot move a mountain now/I can no longer run/I cannot be who I was then/In a way, I never was) on "September When It Comes" resonates with melancholy and defeat, rendering his daughter's placid delivery a too-ironic counterpoint. (Because no prestige project is complete without featured guests, the Man in Black is merely one marquee name among several; Steve Earle adds his enervated growl to one song, and Sheryl Crow adds anonymous-sounding harmonies to the groggy opening track, "Beautiful Pain.")

None of the disc's eleven songs is tough enough to open an album and demand that you keep it playing, and none sounds certain enough even to mark an album's midpoint, let alone end one. Instead, Travel is an album of penultimate songs, dwelling in the twilight into which stronger records gaze after the halfway mark and from which emerge closing songs that tie up what's come before and hint at what might be next.

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