Rosanne Cash's first album of new material in eight years (2009's The List consisted of covers) is so worth the wait. The River & the Thread is a virtual audio-travelogue of her investigation of the American South's complex history. (While Cash was born in Memphis, she was raised mostly in California.) With its restrained, smoldering slide-guitar opening riff, "A Feather's Not a Bird" moves with a sultry, slow, supple groove, an artful mix of Tony Joe White's swamp pop and Allen Toussaint's N'awlins sophistication. "Etta's Tune" strides the line between country and folk, with gently crisp mandolin, acoustic guitar picking, and subtly swelling pedal steel. The near-ghostly chorus of the plaintive "Tell Heaven" carries undertones of country gospel, and the austere two-beat crackle of "The Sunken Lands" echoes her father's song "I Walk the Line."
Musically, Cash draws upon the iconic sounds of the South for her palette but is not limited by them: The achingly beautiful "Night School" seems like an obliquely structured art song until its winsome chorus, which has an almost Broadway musical lilt and swelling, near-baroque strings. "Money Road" has an earthy, undulating cadence until its sparkling, Springsteen-tinged chorus and hard-twanging, bristly electric-sitar flourishes, and "Modern Blue" is a yearning mid-tempo rocker with an insinuating chorus for which many roots-y/Americana bands would kill their managers.
Cash's clear, reserved singing is as good as it's ever been, and these songs' settings are exquisitely arranged without a hint of excess. River is perhaps her best album to date. (Blue Note)