Monday, March 16, 2009

Ryan Adams - a riposte


Some time ago I wrote scathingly about Ryan Adams. I feel I made some valid points. However I omitted an awful lot more about this vital artist.

He broke into the music scene first as frontman of Whiskeytown. Their debut album, Faithless Street is, for some, Ryan Adams' finest hour. If you have any taste at all for country or alt.country you will not believe how perfect this album sounds. It lurches from REM style jangle (Midway Park), to Replacements trash-rock (Drank Like a River) to plaintive ballads (the title track and many others). I could write for ages about this album, it's a real underrated classic. None of the songs are particularly original, they are all vaguely country but they all sound SO good. The 21 track version is a must as the extra tracks are well worth it. There are some great lyrics about wanting to play country but being in a rock n roll band (Faithless Street / Lo-Fi Tennessee Mountain Angel). In fact, the best thing about these songs is they sound effortless, almost 'tossed-off'.

They issued a stop-gap mini-album, Rural Free Delivery, which is of almost as high a standard (especially Pawnshop Ain't No Place for a Wedding Ring). Their next album Strangers' Almanac is much loved by the critics but I failed to warm to it. All the rough edges have been smoothed away, leaving some good tunes, but there's a smoothness and sameness to this release which doesn't move me.

The follow-up, Pneumonia, got lost in between record companies for years before finally being released in 2001. It's a decent collection of songs, with plenty of mope and lope along songs (Jacksonville Skyline, Sit and Listen to the Rain), along with poppier ones like (Don't Wanna Know Why, Bar Lights).

At the same time, Adams' solo career was kicking off. Before he released his proper debut, he recorded a collection of songs with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings known as the Destroyer Sessions, which I 'stumbled upon'. It's largely acoustic with some nice touches of glockenspiel etc, and most of the songs are unavailable elsewhere. It finishes with a hard-rocking version of Revelator, which Gillian Welch went on to record acoustically and it formed the title track of her third album. The prima-donna Ryan Adams is completely absent here.

His first official solo album, Heartbreaker is very good in patches though completely overrated. There are, however, some wonderful songs on it, apart from the much played Oh My Sweet Carolina and Come Pick Me Up, namely, My Winding Wheel which is like a modern-day Dylan song (and that's a good thing) and the downright lovely AMY.

The follow-up, Suicide Handbook was rejected by his record company for being too depressing. Having heard it, it's a little one-paced for my tastes, but some of the better songs (Dear Chicago, Answering Bell) were salvaged for future releases. Gold was released instead, a sprawling, commercial collection which seemed a little calculated to make Mr. Adams a star. The Springsteen-esque pose with the US flag on the cover was a little much. The material contained within is like a fascinating game of spot the influence, everybody from, Springsteen, to Neil Young, to Elton John, Who and Rolling Stones referenced. It's a good collection of songs if a little too knowing.

There were stories flying about in the aftermath of this release of a whole load of albums ready for release. As well as the aforementioned Suicide Handbook, 48 Hours was a country collection apparently inspired by Alanis Morrissette, and there was the Stockholm (or Swedish) sessions and also a 'rock' album with a band called the 'Pinkhearts', and he was even rumoured to have recorded an acoustic, country version of the Strokes debut, Is This It. What was becoming clear was that being an alt.country prodigy was not enough for Adams, but his record company couldn't keep up. Most of the material was not released, though a collection of highlights from all of these came out, entitled 'Demolition', which doesn't really work as a cohesive listen, going from AOR rocker (Nuclear) to sensitive ballad (Dear Chicago).

Notwithstanding all of this, his next solo album proper, Love Is Hell, was rejected by his record company Lost Highway. Instead he produced a whole new album of rock songs, Rock N Roll, which for the most part didn't convince. At this stage, I, like many others was rapidly reaching Ryan Adams overload. The last thing I wanted to hear was that Love Is Hell was now also coming out, in the form of 2 EPs.

I relented, however, and purchased them. Supposedly inspired by Smiths (and subsequently re-released as one album), it's arguably his best stuff. A great big slab of rainy mope-rock, drawing from the Smiths, Lloyd Cole, Radiohead, Jeff Buckley along with nuggets of 'country goodness', the playing and songwriting on this album (or EPs) is terrific. Too many highlights to list, his singing ranges from angsty, to regret, to resignation and finally redemption. It's not all great, the Oasis cover, Wonderwall, gets tiring after a while, and the Purple Rain inspired Hotel Chelsea Nights is a little much but all the rest is really good. Some of the songs seem quite ordinary at first (This House Is Not For Sale, World War 24, City Rain,City Streets) but slowly reveal themselves to be charming strum-alongs. On ballads like My Blue Manhattan and I See Monsters he is on top form. He seems at his best when he doesn't sound like he's trying too hard (Gold, Rock N Roll).

But the story doesn't stop there. A year later (2005) he released 2 country-rock collections (Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Night). To my ears, these seemed like a deliberate return to his country roots. Far better was the 3rd (!) album he released that year, 29. Billed as one song for each of his 20s, it was back to his more singer-songwriter type songs. Apart from the chug-along title track, the album contains some of his most sensitive songs (Night Birds) and some more effortless country (Carolina Rain).

Since then he has concentrated on his work with his band, the Cardinals. My previous post will tell you I'm not so fond of them. Easy Tiger had it's moments though, mostly the more acoustic ballads, though it and the follow-up Cardinology seemed like a triumph of craft over art. It's very MOR to my ears. I don't relish him churning out album after album of this kind of 'contented' vaguely country-rock, so here's hoping he'll lose the plot again with another glorious experiment.