Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lust at First Sound: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals: III/IV

The first time I heard Ryan Adams it was lust at first sound. I remember arriving to meet a beau one crisp autumn evening when a flood of warmth and the refrain of “Firecracker, from the 2001 Gold album, embraced me at the door. “Who is this?” I insisted. “Ryan Adams,” I was told. Thinking I must have misheard, “Bryan Adams,” I politely concealed my eye rolling. “No. R-R-Ryan Adams,” he said. So it began: my affair with the tortured genius of alternative country. The Americana meets 70s pop/rock sound, artfully accompanied with poignant lyrics became a solid favorite.

Last year it was announced that Ryan Adams and his former backing band, the Cardinals, were releasing a two-disc album of shelved sessions from their 2007 Easy Tiger recording in December. The fact that Adams had been in a state of “retirement” since 2008, added another layer of expectancy to the 2-disc collection. Perhaps I held my bated breath a bit too long, for upon listening to III/IV I was sorely disappointed. It sounded nothing like Easy Tiger. This so-called “rock-opera” blended together into almost inaudible noise. There were so many electric guitars, so few acoustics; so many pointless instrumental solos, no harmonicas to be heard of. A little perturbed, and having nobody to blame (it was recorded before meeting Mandy Moore); I saw that my knee jerk reaction was shared online amongst music critics. Then I did something that usually causes me regret: I gave it a second chance.

Ryan Adams & the Cardinals
Settling in with the liner notes and a few older albums, for comparison sake, I gave III/IV my undivided attention. This led to me to conclude that as much as it strays from Adams’ tested and true sound, it does not necessarily stray from his habit of being versatile vanguard. While there were no songs on the album that reflected his passionate country sound on Heartbreaker (2000), the driving 80s pop/rock energy heard in such tracks as “Ultraviolet Light” were reminiscent of Adams’ rock-oriented Gold release. The Cardinals’ backing instrumentals on the same track carry a similar weight as Easy Tiger’s “Halloweenhead.” That and Adams is no stranger to experimentalism: his metal-esque album Orion, released in 2010 on vinyl only, makes the electric guitar solos on III/IV seem rather tame.

More importantly the sadness remains. There is nothing like an artist who knows how to match your “sewers-at-the bottom-of-a-wishing-well” mood. To put this in perspective, Ryan Adams can be sad even for country music, his Suicide Handbook album was rejected for distribution because it was “too sad.” Nobody articulates how it feels to be let down, and to let down, quite like Adams. For example, “Stop Playing With My Heart” is a quintessential Adams song about resisting someone whom you should not fall for (unfortunately, after you’ve already let them in). His swaggering yet sweet lyrics can also be found in “P.S. and Breakdown and Resolve.” Ryan’s songs can provide an appropriate back drop for melancholic evenings.

Ryan Adams
Born in Jacksonville, NC in 1974, Adams was under the understandable influence of country music and 70s rock. The musical sway of Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and The Band seeped into young Adams’ psyche, who was already a prolific poet. Dropping out of high school to pursue his music career, Adams found the band Patty Duke Syndrome, as a teenager. In 1994, he formed the promising but tumultuous alternative country band Whiskeytown. Adams went solo in 2000 releasing Heartbreaker on Bloodshot Records. While receiving high critical acclaim, not just from media reviews but from fellow musicians including Elton John, Adams was not an initial commercial success. It was the single “New York, New York,” on his 2001 Gold album, that became an anthem for a wounded city while granting Adams the recognition he deserved. Overall Adams recorded seven albums as a solo artist and five with the Cardinals, formed in 2004 by Adams.

All in all, I do have nothing but respect and admiration for Adams’ love of experimentation: trying everything, his way. Personally, I miss the harmonica, but cannot write this off altogether. It is not his best work, but it is still a solid album. If you have never heard Ryan Adams, do not start with this, go with anything listed above. On the other hand, if you are already a devoted fan: listen -- at least twice.

 -- Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.  

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