Formerly the leader of the acclaimed alternative country rock band Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams (NOT Bryan Adams)recorded his first solo album Heartbreaker in a mere 14 days, with significant contributions from Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and producer Ethan Johns. Heartbreaker is aptly titled, for it's a sad, lonesome album about love lost, with lyrics like "is God playing evil tricks on me?" and "oh, I just want to die without you" being typical of his depressing down-and-out lamentations. However, though the album's downcast themes make it an album that I need to be in the mood for, there's no denying the appeal of his stripped down yet emotionally and melodically rich music. Simply put, this album has some great songs, beginning with "To Be Young," which has the ragged quality of Dylan circa Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited, while "My Winding Wheel" is even harder to shake (love the atmospheric Hammond organ that appears here and elsewhere), and "Oh My Sweet Carolina," a love letter to his home state, is a duet with Emmylou Harris that would've made her long-lost duet partner Gram Parsons proud. The more lushly fleshed out "Amy" is also impressive, as are "Call Me On Your Way Back Home" and "Come Pick Me Up" (which features Kim Richey on backing vocals and this memorable lyric: "come pick me up, come take me out, fuck me up, steal my records, screw all my friends, they're all full of shit, the smile on your face, and then do it again"), both of which again strongly recall Dylan; when he breaks out the harmonica damn it if it doesn't nearly give me goosebumps. "Why Do They Leave?," which improbably brings Jeff Buckley and Bob Dylan to mind, is another highlight-able number, as is "In My Time Of Need," one of the most intimate tracks on this most intimate of albums. At 15 songs (really 14, as song 1 is just a needless intro) perhaps there are a few too many of them, especially since many of these mostly mid-tempo folk ballads share a similarly dreary mood; the average Stonesy rocker "Shakedown On 9th Street" sticks out like a sore thumb and would make my choice for the cutting room floor along with "Damn, Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains)" and "To Be The One." Overall, Heartbreaker is a very good if obviously flawed first solo effort that has a focus of purpose and a poignant sincerity that Adams has since had trouble matching.
Gold (Lost Highway ’01) Rating: A-
Released a mere year after Heartbreaker (in fact, by the time you finish reading this review the prolific Adams' has probably penned another song), Gold starts off strong with "New York, New York," a brisk love letter to that great city that should be required listening post-September 11th (it always lifts my spirits, anyway). Next, "Firecracker" is another upbeat, catchy song with a distinct Dylan-esque flavor, while "Answering Bell" is a simple but highly effective pop ballad on which the pedal steel guitar colors the background rather than leads the way (that Hammond organ sure hits the spot as well), demonstrating how this diverse solo set differs from his more country rooted former band (for the record, I prefer both of Adams first two solo albums to any of his Whiskeytown albums). In addition to the aforementioned songs, the album's strongest songs are ballads such as "The Rescue Blues," a gutsy. riff-based blues ballad with gospel backing (I'd love to hear The Black Crowes cover it), "Somehow, Someday," a melodic, catchy soft rocker with movingly devotional lyrics, "When The Stars Go Blue," an utterly lovely, questioning ballad that's become perhaps his most famous song, and "Harder Now That It's Over," a memorably sad and poignant breakup ballad. However, during the album's ambitious 70 minute duration it becomes obvious that this could've been a killer 50 minute album with but a bit of judicious editing. Not that there's a lot of filler - there isn't - but there are several merely solid songs, particularly on the album's second half, and cutting maybe four of them would've improved the overall product. Also, though I like the majority of the extended guitar epic "Nobody Girl," it certainly didn't need to be nearly 10 minutes long! Then again, quality control has always been Adams' biggest problem (along with record company interference), but this was still a striking second album from this talented tunesmith. It may lack the emotional resonance of Heartbreaker, but it has far more variety, plus Adams' pens some of the best melodies of his career so it's a worthwhile tradeoff. True, Adams' songs sometimes fail to rise above their at times all too obvious influences; Gold can be seen as Ryan's homage to some of his favorite '70s classic rock heroes, including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and Elton John, among others. But Adams is an affecting singer who is adept at a great many styles, both from a songwriting and performance standpoint; other highlights include more lovely ballads like "La Cienga Just Smiled," "Wild Flowers," and "Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd.," the catchy, groovy Bo Diddley beat driven "Gonna Make You Love Me," and the soulful, r&b-based, gospel-ish "Touch, Feel, & Lose" (I'd also like to hear The Black Crowes cover this one). Also, the album's sound (again overseen by producer Ethan Johns) is fittingly commercial without being overly slick, making Gold a flawed but still exceedingly fine "classic rock" record for modern times.
Cold Roses (Lost Highway ’05) Rating: A-
After Gold Ryan Adams frustratingly underachieved for a few years, releasing an album of rejects from other albums (Demolition), an album with some good songs but a big mess overall (the aptly titled Rock N Roll), and an album of moody Smiths-inspired alternative songs that was shelved by his record company and then finally released as two separate EPS (Love Is Hell, easily the best album of this bunch, was eventually released on a single CD; it's best known song is a cover of Oasis' "Wonderwall"). With help from his fine new backing band The Cardinals, Adams has returned to his country rock roots and released the excellent Cold Roses, a serious contender for his best album to date. Unfortunately, this ever-unpredictable artist also saw fit to release two other (lesser) albums in 2005, the very country Jacksonville City Nights (also with the Cardinals) and the solo set 29, both of which have their supporters as well (in particular Jacksonville City Nights) but their existence diluted the impact of this one (which itself was a slightly over-stuffed double album with 18 tracks!). Courtesy of The Cardinals, Cold Roses features a more fully fleshed out sound than other discography high points (such as Heartbreaker), though the album still has sparse ballads and song titles such as “When Will You Go Back Home?,” “Now That You’re Gone,” and “How Do You Keep Love Alive.” The album also has other superb songs such as “Magnolia Mountain,” “Easy Plateau,” “Let It Ride,” “Cold Roses,” and “If I am A Stranger,” but oddly enough this album’s strength is in its start-to-finish consistency, as Adams delivers classic Americana songwriting in the vein of other timeless acts such as Gram Parsons, The Grateful Dead, The Band, and Uncle Tupelo and their offshoots (Son Volt and Wilco), while the Cardinals provide strong support not only musically but vocally as well (quite a few songs here feature multiple voices, though it’s not clear to me whether or not some of those voices are Adams himself, and he remains an underrated, emotive singer). As with most double albums, this one probably could've (and should've) been trimmed to a single CD, and I would've preferred a few more upbeat tunes, but with the often-superb Cold Roses Ryan Adams lived up to the promise of his excellent early albums.
Ashes & Fire (PAX AM, Capitol ’11) Rating: A-
Sorry to you completists out there that I'm cherry picking particular Ryan Adams albums to review rather than commenting on all of them. You see, Adams is an extremely prolific artist (he has many unreleased albums as well that diehard fans know how to get a hold of, some of which they’ll swear are better than his official releases), and though he's very talented he's inconsistent; in all honesty I'm much more likely to listen to a Ryan Adams playlist than any of his proper albums. But if taking the bad with the good is part of the package when dealing with Adams, the payoff is often worth it, because when he's good he's very good. This is the case on Ashes & Fire, one of his better recent albums. Produced by the legendary Glyn Johns (father of Ethan Johns who had produced several of his prior records), the album sound-wise is primarily (but not always) sparse and I'd classify it as a "late night mood" album; in fact I often opt to put it on in bed at night. I also wouldn't hesitate to call it a "country soul" album, in part because Adams' vocals sound more confident and soulful than I think I've ever heard before. Sure, the album may be lacking in excitement, but it's not that kind of album, and though perhaps a couple of songs lack distinctive characteristics, on the whole this album sees Adams focused and self-assured. Acoustic guitar is the primary instrument that anchors these mostly sad songs, but Norah Jones (piano and occasionally backing vocals), Benmont Tench (Hammond organ), pedal steel, a string quartet, and female backing vocals (wife Mandy Moore in addition to Jones) also help flesh out the sound (in addition to more typical instrumentation like bass and drums). The album peaks immediately with the beautiful "Dirty Rain," the livelier title track, and the yearning "Come Home," but the quality is admirably high throughout, with "Kindness" and first single "Lucky Now," a pair of more hopeful entries smartly sequenced towards the end of the album, being other standouts. On a different day I could name others lik the more fleshed out, dramatic "Do I Wait," the modest but effective “Invisible Riverside,” the lonesome Neil Young-like lament "Save Me," and the touching finale "I Love You But I Don't Know What To Say," as Ashes & Fire is a consistently strong release. Note: Backtracking a few years, 2007's Easy Tiger was consistently solid if not especially memorable, while 2008's Cardinology was probably the weakest (and as of this writing, the last) Ryan Adams album backed by The Cardinals.
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