Rock column, Mail on Sunday, July 2 2006

Johnny Cash
American V: A Hundred Highways
American Recordings, out tomorrow

Regina Spektor
Begin To Hope
Warner, July 10
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

You can tell a lot about pop stars from their hair. Recently Elton John was photographed with rather less than his usual terracotta thatch poking out from under his baseball cap. He was so aggrieved, he went to court seeking an injunction, but the judge allowed publication to go ahead, leaving a question in the air: did Elton really think we thought his hair was all his own?

Now here is probably the last new album from Johnny Cash, who died in 2003, aged 72, after years of serious respiratory illness. The cover shows an old man who is frail, grey and balding. But if Cash had lost much of his hair, along with half his sight, he had held onto every shred of his dignity.

No singer ever aged as well. Guided by a younger mentor, Rick Rubin, Cash climbed out of a mid-life trough to make four lapidary albums, American I-IV. He faced up not just to age but to death, making music of stentorian humanity that expanded the possibilities of pop and turned his final decade into one long glowing sunset.

Death, in return, has been good to him, as the hit film Walk The Line has brought the music and drama of his early life to a new generation. Now Rubin has put together American V, gathering the same musicians to put backing tracks behind Cash’s vocals and acoustic guitar. Remarkably, it feels like an album.

The recipe hasn’t changed: Rubin finds interesting songs, Cash picks the ones he can relate to and hones them like an arrowsmith. The vocal tone, rich, dark and oil-free, is all his own, and so is the pacing. He tackles a lyric like an elderly tennis player, walking round the court and still putting the ball away.

Cash’s career spanned rock’s first 50 years and the covers here range even wider, from the traditional spiritual God’s Gonna Cut You Down, hammered home with heavy handclaps, to Bruce Springsteen’s Further On Up The Road from 2002, a blast recast as a folkie strum. Along the way there’s the Sixties folk-pop gem Four Strong Winds and Hank Williams’s On The Evening Train, the tale of a young man who has lost his wife, sung here by an old man who had lost his – June Carter Cash, played by Reese Witherspoon in the film, died only five months before her husband.

There are also two original songs, thought to be the last Cash ever wrote, and both worthy of him. I Came To Believe is an immaculately conversational country-gospel tune, and Like The 309 is a swinging, shuffling train song about – you guessed it – impending death.

Overall, though, this is a milder album than American IV. The morbid brilliance of The Man Comes Around had burnt itself out, leaving a winning warmth. In the end, Cash did go gentle into that good night.

A great year for American women singers, featuring fine albums by Fiona Apple, Cat Power and Jenny Lewis, shows no sign of abating. Regina Spektor, a Russian New Yorker, played the South Bank this week, totally solo, and charmed two large crowds with a shtick that is half passionate intimacy, half fidgety humour.

She writes in every style known to woman. Her fourth album, Begin To Hope, draws on opera and punk-pop as well as folk and soul, and her singing is not so much eclectic as gymnastic, swooping and twisting around some sinewy melodies. Two jaunty anti-love songs, Fidelity and On The Radio, sound like hits waiting to happen. The tour continues to August 23.