Pink Cadillac — the sequel to John Prine’s finest record, last year’s Bruised Orange — is the first major album that rock & roll’s original master producer, Sam Phillips, has had a hand in since the Sixties. That’s why it’s so painful to count it an almost unqualified disaster.
Bruised Orange (produced by Prine’s Chicago crony, Steve Goodman) ran through every singer/songwriter cliché available, but it didn’t matter: the starkness of the compositions, the working-class vignettes and the intensity of the performances simply overwhelmed the lackluster arrangements. Enough so, anyway, that a rockabilly session produced by Phillips’ sons, Knox and Jerry, at the family studio in Memphis certainly seemed a logical next step. The involvement of Sam himself — he produced two tracks — only heightened expectations.
Pink Cadillac mars the reputation of everyone involved. Prine has never sung such a half-assed grab bag of songs, partly because he wrote so few of them (and is in no way a classic interpreter of any material except his own), partly because the outside stuff he chose is so thoroughly mediocre. (Roly Salley’s “Killing the Blues” might have been better than that, if he’d ever finished writing the idea he started with.) Both “Baby Let’s Play House” and “Ubangi Stomp,” the two vintage Sun rockabilly items Prine tackles, are inappropriate for a performer whose best work has always been done in miniature.
When Prine does get something going — in “Saigon, “Automobile” and “How Lucky” — the recording approach destroys it. “Saigon” comes closest to working, if only because Sam Phillips gives the number an electricity that’s been lacking on all of the singer’s previous LPs. But Phillips also buries Prine’s voice, and — as is usual here — the rhythm section is too leaden to rock. In fact, this album has the worst drum sound I’ve heard on any record made in the last couple of years. It’s so muddled that Angie Varias might as well have been banging on shoe boxes with teaspoons.
John Prine says he was looking for raw honesty and plain-spokenness in Memphis, but that’s not something he had to go out of his way to seek. It’s the one thing he’s always had. What the production style does is to obscure the source of his authenticity — his gravel voice and touchingly awkward phrasing — without giving us anything to replace it. And Pink Cadillac has almost nothing to do with the classic Sun records of the Fifties, which are models of recording clarity even twenty-five years later.
The problem isn’t so much that Prine can’t sing rock & roll as that no one here can quite imagine how to make it. So what we’re left with is, at best, a hint — or worse, a rumor — of everyone’s real capabilities. Like most gossip, it’s distorted and unfair to the original version. You want to hear John Prine? Listen to “Angel from Montgomery” on his first LP or “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone” from Bruised Orange. You want to hear Sam Phillips? Try Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train” or Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot.”
You want to get depressed? Listen to this.