Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Year in Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams has always had the ability to polarize music fans. Some love him, some hate him, some just don't care. There's no doubt that he's a colossal douche, what with his public persona. But that's why I love him. Dull, quiet indie rock types don't fascinate me in the least. At least Adams is always ripe for a good quote.

This year, he put out three albums: Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights, and 29. The first two albums were with his new backing band, the Cardinals, while the last was a true solo album, produced with Heartbreaker producer Ethan Johns. Since 2000, he has put out eight (!) albums under his own name (or with the Cardinals), and ten if you take into consideration that Love Is Hell was originally released in two parts, and the unreleased, unofficial collection Destroyer. Then, there's Pneumonia the last album before he left Whiskeytown in 2001, as well as a one-off collaboration with Jesse Malin called The Finger, whose album is called We Are Fuck You. I'm sure I'm missing something, as well. Dude is a song factory.

His detractors will accuse him of simply writing songs in the style of other artists, be it Bruce Springsteen, Paul Westerberg, the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, T. Rex, or Gram Parsons. His influences are often obvious, but Adams is very upfront about what he is listening to at a particular moment, and how it affects his songwriting. But each of his albums also contains a little bit of Ryan himself. While he can affect his voice and guitars to sound like other artists, I've never heard a Ryan Adams song and thought it was actually one of those other artists. At their core, all of his songs sound like Ryan Adams in one way or another.

I like Jacksonville City Nights the best, followed by Cold Roses, and 29. Here's a look back at 2005 for the man who will always be described in reviews, interviews, and features as "prolific".

Album: Cold Roses
Released: May 3

This is the Grateful Dead album, from the name, to the album art, to the track titles. Nowhere is this influence more apparent than on opener "Magnolia Mountain". But, save for a few songs, this is a little misleading, because you'll hear less Dead than you'd expect. If any song here sounds like the real Ryan, it's "When Will You Come Back Home", which wouldn't be entirely unwelcome on Gold. "Let It Ride" sounds more country than anything else. If there's one trait of the Grateful Dead that shows up frequently on Cold Roses, it's the singing style of Jerry Garcia. Adams has an amazing voice, and sometimes it is slowed down and/or out of key like Garcia.

Album: Jacksonville City Nights
Released: September 27

Like Cold Roses, this album is presented with the look and feel of the artist it is most influenced by, in this case Gram Parsons. If the last album was the hang-out-and-smoke-pot-with-your-girl album, Jacksonville City Nights is the sit-at-the-empty-bar-and-drown-your-sorrows-with-your-best-buds album. Parsons is considered the father of country rock, and Adams would probably consider himself the father of alt-country (and he'd also tell Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy to go fuck themselves). Of the three albums, this is the most consistent in style, and that's why I think it's the best and most effective. "The End" could maybe find a home on Parsons' Grievous Angel, and is the least Ryan-sounding of the tracks. The best examples of Adams using an influence and making something truly his own can be found on the rolling "The Hardest Part" and the melancholy "Silver Bullets".

Album: 29
Released: December 20

I didn't care for 29 the first time I heard it. Here, Ryan seems to throw in all of the aforementioned influences, with large doses of his personality. The title-track opener sounds like the Dead's "Truckin'", while "Carolina Rain" brings back hints of Parsons, and "Strawberry Wine" contains traces of Neil Young. It is scattered, to be sure. But the album's grown on me, and what I first thought were faults now don't bother me. It's a concept album of sorts, each track detailing one year in Adams' 20s (although, by my count, that would be ten years and the album only has nine). So, if its about his life, then the patchwork of styles makes perfect sense. It's a very, very somber and melancholy album. The tracks are long and it isn't that easy to listen to, but lyrically it might be the strongest of the three.


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