Initial Reactions (2011): Feist, Ryan Adams, Still Corners, Beirut

Feist – Metals – [ind]: If I had to compare Feist’s career trajectory to anyone right now, it would be Norah Jones. What I mean is, after two great albums, she has reached the point where she is running purely on charm and an amazing voice and beginning to suffer from a complacent and narrow vision. Not that I’m trying to hate – that’s not it at all – but quite frankly this album seems to substitute a sort of languid jazziness for songwriting chops. I know she probably got sick to death of "1234", but would it really kill her to throw an upbeat track or two into the mix? Another one like this and who will care? ("Caught a Long Wind", "Bittersweet Melodies", "Get It Wrong, Get It Right")

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire – [++]: This definitely sounds like Adams pre-Cardinals, which, depending on one’s perspective, could go either way. The good news is that Adams sounds a little wiser, a little more patient, a little more balanced, and completely ready to focus on the things he does best. Excellent melodies abound, and there’s a sleepy Saturday morning feel to the album that recalls Love Is Hell and the lovelier, nostalgic moments on Cold Roses. Furthermore, I’m detecting the ghost of Richard Manuel in many of these tunes, which is always a good thing. Overall, I’m thinking that this might be one of the best albums of his career, and it could wind up being one of the best of any artist this year. ("Lucky Now", "Ashes & Fire", "Dirty Rain")

Still Corners – Creatures Of An Hour – [++]: More like Endless Winter! Very atmospheric, ghostly stuff. Pretty nice, though not incredibly original what with the voluminous…VOLUME of atmospheric and pretty post-punk outfits making music these days. Still, Creatures is well executed, and our lady Tessa Murray positively haunts these tunes. It’s like they took the last few Camera Obscura albums and boiled ’em down in The Cure’s early records. Also, sounds like Memoryhouse, but more David Lynch. Should make for some pleasant twilight drives in the darker seasons. Overall, shows promise. And I like the dude’s vision. ("Endless Summer")

Beirut – The Rip Tide – (++): I’ve always loved the "Old World" element in Zach Condon’s outfit, but on this one he indulges a heavier pop element for the better. Condon has such a profound gift for rich, memorable melodies that the synths and such, instead of sounding kitschy or tacky, further highlight the wonderful old/new paradox that makes Condon’s music rise above the fray. A keeper for sure and a possible year end sleeper. ("Santa Fe", "Goshen")

REACTION KEY

[****]: Enthusiastic. Frequent rotation. A buyer. Contender for year’s best.
[++]: Positive. Good stuff. Possible grower?
[ind]: Indifferent.. Underwhelmed. I don’t expect to come back to this one.
[—]: Negative. A real screw-up. Don’t even bother.

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Career In Brief: Ryan Adams

INTRODUCTION

Ryan Adams (not to be confused with the 80’s Canadian soft pop rocker of a similiar name) came to prominence as the frontman for alt-country visionaries Whiskeytown in the late 90’s. While they were critical darlings, Whiskeytown experienced a number of problems during their short time together, and by the start of the new millenium Adams was out on his own trying to make his way as a solo artist. He debuted in 2000 with the stripped down vagabond rock of Heartbreaker, a record that garnered a lot of critical praise and is considered a classic by many (though not me). After Heartbreaker, Adams struggled for some time with label issues and an identity crisis. Gold and Demolition each contain a handful of good songs, but they are unfocused and ultimately disappointing. With Rock N Roll, Adams appeared to have gone over the edge altogether, producing a rock record that was more about name-checking than craft or songwriting.

Love Is Hell, though still planted in Adams’ early solo work, marked a turning point for Adams. He found a new voice in quieter, introspective songwriting, and the result is the first truly compelling record of his solo career. But it was 2005 that saw Adams finally emerge and produce the work that everyone suspected he was capable of. Cold Roses is still Adams’ masterwork, a sprawling alt-country epic that finds him backed for the first time by The Cardinals. 2005 also saw the release of Jacksonville City Nights, a concept album that features Adams as a barroom troubadour nostalgic for his youth, and 29, a more intimate and personal collection that recalls Love Is Hell.

From 2007 thru 2009, Adams settled into a prolific groove with The Cardinals, establishing a sound all his own with Easy Tiger and Cardinology. But in 2009, he split from The Cardinals and took time away from music (though he’s been releasing archived material in the interim). Word is he’ll be back in late 2011 with his first post-Cardinals release, Ashes & Fire. Here’s hoping that ditching The Cardinals wasn’t akin to Springsteen ditching the E Street Band. Otherwise, it might be a long decade for RAdams.

NOTE: Adams is a ludicrously productive songwriter. There are at least six albums of unreleased material from his early days that haven’t seen any sort of official release: The Suicide Handbook, 48 Hours, Pinkhearts, Darkbreaker, Black Hole, and Destroyer. Additionally, in 2010 he released the sci-fi metal concept album Orion in tribute to Voivod, and a full cover of The Strokes’ Is This It? exists as well. And chances are there’s a slew of other unreleased material. I won’t be covering the unreleased material, but you can find Destroyer here. And maybe I’ll review Orion at some point, when it’s made available through the streaming services.

ALBUMS

Heartbreaker (2000) – [B]: Profoundly overrated debut. Decent in its own right, but not the masterpiece many think it is. ["To Be Young"] (my review)

Gold (2001) – [C]: Positioned for the airwaves, falls flat with a few memorable on the front end. ["La Cienega Just Smiled"] (my review)

Demolition (2002) – [B+]: Adams doesn’t try, makes best record yet. Typical. ["Hallelujah"] (my review)

Rock N Roll (2003) – [C]: Essentially annoying. ["Burning Photographs"] (my review)

Love Is Hell (2004) – [A-]: Intimate, dream-like, brilliant. ["English Girls Approximately"] (my review)

**Cold Roses (2005) – [A]: Finally makes an alt-country masterpiece. Achieves his potential. ["Easy Plateau"] (my review)

Jacksonville City Nights (2005) – [B+]: Less alt, more country. Adams briefly indulges bar room country in his own unique way. ["A Kiss Before I Go"] (my review)

29 (2005) – [C+]: Adams leaves his roaring twenties behind. Mostly quiet and murmurous, mostly a snoozer. ["29"] (my review)

Easy Tiger (2007) – [A-]: An enjoyable synthesis of his earlier workstreams. Contains some of his best songs. ["Pearls On A String"] (my review)

Cardinology (2008) – [C]: Adams confuses musical heroics with inspired songwriting and performance. ["Born Into A Light"] (my review)

III/IV (2010) – [B-]: Quantity over quality, but essokay. ["Kill the Lights"] (my review)

OTHER

Moroccan Role EP (2004) – [3/3]: Hey, alt country??? What the???? "Ah Life" is a good change of pace. Sort of a grungey Dylan thing going on. That’s how I’d classify the rest of the record.  This is actually really good. ["Ah Life"]

Follow the Lights EP (2005) – [7/7]: Gotta dig the Alice in Chains cover. Also, I like this version of "This Is It." Overall good, nothing remarkable, but I do like some of the directions he takes here. ["Follow the Lights"]

He’s got a bunch more back tracks that I don’t have access to – maybe one of these days.

Quick Review (LP): III/IV by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
III/IV
PAX AM; 2010

My Rating: B- (62/100)

Best Tracks: "Breakdown Into The Resolve", "Ultraviolet Light", "The Crystal Skull", "Typecast", "Stop Playing With My Heart", "Kisses Start Wars", "Kill the Lights"

Quantity over quality, with a handful of strong tracks.

NOTES

  • "Breakdown Into The Resolve" is a cool little alterna-rock tune. Sounds like the Foos.
  • "Ultraviolet Light" is a definite high point here.
  • "Stop Playing With My Heart" is a cool little power-pop tune. Nice female backing vocals (who dat?).
  • Nice Beach Boys salute on "Kisses Start Wars" ("Don’t worry, baby!").
  • "Icebreaker" = serious butt rock. Holds true for a lot of IV.
  • What other tune does that guitar riff on "Typecast" hint at? And is that Norah Jones?
  • "Kill the Lights" is a cool rocker with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It’s like a punkish Allman Brothers tune.
  • Quantity over quality here for sure, but it’s obvious this was not intended by Adams as a "main" release anyway. It’s a decent collection of mostly forgettable tunes, but I can understand why Brad Pemberton liked driving around and listening to this one every once in a while. Adams may not produce greatness with every release, but his output is something to behold.
  • AMG hears The Replacements. I guess I agree with that.
  • So aren’t we at a place with music where bands can release everything from a session? Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a proponent of the album format, as in "this is the finished product, the record we set out to make when we began this project." But why not just go ahead and release everything worth releasing a year or two later? The great artists seem to do this, with the exception of a few of my favorites (Wilco, Radiohead, U2), who release a lot, but hold a lot as well. I applaud Mr. Adams for doing that here.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (3/5)
Consistency (3.5/5
Songs (4/5)

Quick Review (LP): Cardinology by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
Cardinology
Lost Highway; 2008

My Rating: C (48/100)

Best Tracks: "Born Into A Light", "Go Easy", "Natural Ghost", "Sink Ships"


An easy-listening hard rock record. In other words, a misstep.

NOTES

  • I dig the laid-back groove of "Born Into A Light." It’s hard to beat Adams playing alt-country with a crack band.
  • "Go Easy" is sort of gorgeous, though not outstanding.
  • "Natural Ghost" sort of sounds like Queensryche. That’s a good thing.
  • "Stop" sounds like a Love Is Hell leftover.
  • This is a strong guitar album. The band uses a lot of different guitar styles, and their playing is excellent.
  • Falls short on the songwriting front, and the album lacks any sort of grand vision. Also, I mean that thing up there about easy listening hard rock.
  • All in all, a frustratingly average record. There’s a few strong moments early on, but all interest is lost by the end. It’s as if Adams mistakes his prodigious talent and crack backing band for excellence itself. Unfortunately, it just don’t work that way.
  • As Adams’ career progresses, he seems to be more into the guitar playing. He’s playing hard rock these days. Given his prolific songwriting and manic personality, he’s sort of like a hybrid of Rivers Cuomo and Axl Rose. Think about it.
  • Pitchfork review is spot on.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (3/5)
Concept (3/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (3.5/5)
Songs (3.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Easy Tiger by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams
Easy Tiger
Lost Highway; 2007

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Goodnight Rose", "Everybody Knows", "Tears of Gold", "Pearls On A String"

All of his previous records, synthesized into a tight, poppy collection.

NOTES

  • "Goodnight Rose" is a solid opener, imitates Jeff Buckley’s bigger moments.
  • "Two" and "Everybody Knows" are acoustic gems. Gorgeous.
  • I’ve never been sure what to make of "Halloweenhead" – is it the musical equivalent of the airbrushed "4:20" on the album cover?
  • A trio of quieter moments figure among the best tracks: "Oh My God, Whatever, etc.", "Pearls on a String", and "These Girls."
  • Love "Tears of Gold." Now THAT‘s the kind of songwriting that I expect from Adams.
  • "The Sun Also Sets" also recalls Buckley, esp. in Adams’ vocals. He seems to be channeling Buckley quite a bit as his career progresses.
  • "Pearls on a String" is one of Adams’ all-time best. "Bluegrass-ish", as Kinsella might say.
  • "Two Hearts" is an even-keeled adult alternative rocker. It’s kinda purrty.
  • This album has slowly grown on me over the years. I thought it was good when I first heard it upon initial release, and at this point, I’m comfortable saying that Adams not only avoids all of the pitfalls that wrecked some of his earlier albums, but he really NAILS it in the songwriting department. It’s interesting that his best albums have been with The Cardinals (Cold Roses, this one). It’s not perfection, but it’s totally enjoyable, and probably in his top 3.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): 29 by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams
29
Lost Highway; 2005

My Rating: C+ (60/100)

Best Tracks: "29", "Nightbirds", "Starlite Diner"

Reelin’ in the years?

NOTES

  • The opener is an epic, roadhouse-style romper. Great guitar and vocals. Pretty great track.
  • "Nightbirds" smacks of Radiohead towards the end.
  • "Starlite Diner" is understated and gorgeous, but it might just put you to sleep.
  • "The Sadness" – not so sure this style works for Ryan. A little too dramatic, feels a bit out of place here.
  • There is a dark atmosphere to this record, similar to Love Is Hell. However, I don’t think this one quite has the same magic.
  • After the huge rock sound of the opener, things get very quiet and meditative. Honestly, tracks 2 thru 6 are lovely, but a little boring. Your going to need a good pair of speakers or headphones to get the intended effect. I’m guessing they’d sound really nice on vinyl though.
  • I think 29 would make a good vinyl listen on a quiet, rainy Saturday morning. It’s sort of lovely, but really slow and difficult to penetrate.
  • I like Adams’ concept, but I do wonder if his twenties were really this much of a downer? I mean, seriously, the guy was the toast of indie rock during that period.
  • In my humble opinion, Adams needs to stay away from Ethan Johns. That dude tones him down in all the wrong ways. I haven’t liked any of the albums they’ve done together.
  • I still haven’t really made up my mind about this one. On one hand, I find it terribly dull. On the other, I feel like it’s a grower with a little patience and attention.
  • Best album cover he’s had. It forebodeth for sure.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Consistency (3/5)
Consequence (3.5/5)
Concept (4.5/5)
Songs (4/5)

Quick Review (LP): Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams
Heartbreaker
Bloodshot; 2000

My Rating: B (70/100)

Best Tracks: “To Be Young”, “Shakedown on 9th Street”, “In My Time of Need”


Scattered and inflated debut from an immense talent.

NOTES

  • “To Be Young” is fantastic. It sounds like a missing cut from Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. Nice falsetto.
  • “Come Pick Me Up” – I remember what it was like to be 16, but dang, how bout some perspective?
  • The production on “Winding Wheel” is awful.
  • A heartfelt “YES!” to everything about “In My Time Of Need.” What a beautiful song. More like this please.
  • Look, I get why so many people think this album is a classic, but the bottom line is that it is not only uneven, it is a technical train wreck of epic proportions. There are some great songs, but there’s also a lot of pretentious drivel that gets passed off as poetic flare. The rule of thumb with Radams 50 percent great and 50 percent garbage. He’s been improving on that ratio lately, but it’s more like 25/75 here.
  • Maybe I’m just approaching it from the perspective of someone who’s gotten to know Adams’ subsequent output, but this just comes off like a set demos that could have been pulled together with other sessions to form a really great debut.
  • The Pitchfork review, while surely a boon to Adams’ career trajectory, is hyperbolic and inflated.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consistency (3.5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Songs (4/5)

Quick Review (LP): Jacksonville City Nights by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams
Jacksonville City Nights
Lost Highway; 2005

My Rating: B+ (76/100)

Best Tracks: "A Kiss Before I Go", "Dear John", "The Hardest Part", "Silver Bullets", "Peaceful Valley"

A little more lovely, a lot more twangy.

NOTES

  • For a guy who got pigeon-holed as an alt-country twang-rocker early on in his solo career, this is his twangiest effort by far.
  • Plenty of solid tracks here. Benefits a lot from the pedal steel + violin arrangements.
  • Tracks like "A Kiss Before I Go" and "My Heart Is Broken" fit the cosmic american music moniker well. Gram would be proud.
  • Lovely themes abound. "Peaceful Valley" is gorgeous.
  • There’s a few memorable tracks here, but only a few. The rest of the album sort of passes by in a pretty stupor.
  • It’s not his best, but it is one his better records. There’s life right through it, even when it threatens to get a little drab, as Adams as wont to do. I’m guessing The Cardinals were to thank for that?
  • AMG:  "[I]t’s still hard not to shake the suspicion that Ryan Adams is primarily a pastiche artist, since it’s not only easy to spot influences throughout the album, but because the atmosphere of the record makes more of an impression than the individual songs." Spot on, but I don’t give him a hard time about the atmosphere. It’s one of my favorite things about Adams’ work, something he seems to get better than most alt-country artists, and something that separates him from the pack. Remember Nashville Skyline? “Girl from the North Country”, “Lay Lady Lay”? It’s a nostalgic wash, this.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Songs (4/5)

Quick Review (LP): Cold Roses by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams
Cold Roses
Lost Highway; 2005

My Rating: A (95/100)

Best Tracks: "Magnolia Mountain", "When Will You Come Back Home", "How Do You Keep Love Alive", "Easy Plateau", "Let It Ride", "Cold Roses", "Friends"

Adams embraces mountain jams and Allman joy.

NOTES

  • I love the groove of "Magnolia Mountain", and the lyrics ain’t bad either.
  • "Sweet Illusion" is a totally lovely moment. Great chiming guitars.
  • Man, "Meadowlake Street" – so GOOD! It’s like Adams was saving up all of his best stuff for one record.
  • The melody and looseness of "When Will You Come Back Home" make it the kind of track that causes your eyes to roll back in their head. Bliss. Peaceful, easy…
  • The Cardinals were one hell of a band. I don’t think there’s been an album that sounds this easy and grand on the country-rock scene since The Eagles’ debut.
  • Love the dobro on "Cherry Lane" – Cindy Cashdollar, that’s a name for a country musician!
  • Good grief, "Easy Plateau" sounds like they are recording in mountain caverns on the edge of the Garden of Eden. Breath-taking.
  • "Let It Ride" is a cruiser. "Moving like the fog on the Cumberland River/I was leaving on the Delta Queen/And I wasn’t ready to go/I’m never ready to go…"
  • "Friends" closes things out on a big, wide open pasture. Glorious.
  • Memorable lyrics, top notch melodies, ace performances, and lush instrumentation abound. This is a gloriously nostalgic and sprawling masterpiece, and the start of a new day for Adams.
  • AMG says "It’s not the sound of somebody striving to save rock & roll, or even to be important, but that’s precisely why this is the easiest Ryan Adams to enjoy." I think that about sums it up. He apparently rode a tidal wave of credibility from his Whiskeytown days on into his first handful of solo records, and flashes of genius along the way were enough to keep listeners attentive. In all reality, though, this is the first great album of Adams’ career, a record where he lets off the accelerator and eases into a southern rock groove. The truth is, he doesn’t lose a bit of what’s been good about Ryan Adams up to this point either. Lovely, rockin’, twangy, and pastoral all at once. Maybe we can just consider those first five records public test runs?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Songs (5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Love Is Hell by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams
Love Is Hell
Lost Highway; 2004

My Rating: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "This House Is Not For Sale", "Wonderwall", "The Shadowlands", "English Girls Approximately", "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home"

Slows things down, starts to find his way.

NOTES

  • Strong opener with "Political Scientist." Amazing lyrics.
  • Great atmosphere on this record. It’s a rainy day record, but its still got a big rock sound.
  • Love that guitar riff on "This House Is Not For Sale." Slowing things down helps quite a bit.
  • "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home" is a fantastic jangle-pop track. Seriously, it’s worthy of early REM, and that’s saying a lot from me.
  • The story goes that Adams’ version of "Wonderwall" is so good that Noel Gallagher just gave it to him one night. It’s solid, but I still prefer the Oasis version.
  • Good grief, "The Shadowlands" is gorgeous. One of his best.
  • "I See Monsters" has an amazing sound. It points towards some of the work he’d do on Cold Roses.
  • "English Girls Approximately" is a great little love song that I’m sure has launched a thousand mixtapes. The explosions of guitar echo at the end are the perfect way to close the track.
  • Not every track is brilliant, but even the lesser ones are pretty good. A major and much needed recovery from the disaster that was Rock N Roll.
  • The lushness of this record is one of its most appealing aspects. It’s very acoustic and lovely and ornate, jangly and hyper-melodic. I’m thinking it’s a masterpiece.
  • Overall, I think this record makes the case that Adams is a visionary, though an inconsistent and undisciplined one. Maybe he is more of a reckless genius?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Songs (4.5/5)