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Ryan Adams

+ {The Finger}

One letter short of a certain Canadian rocker, Jacksonville, North Carolina-born RYAN ADAMS was an entirely different proposition from his elder nemesis, stemming as he did from alt-country origins. And he doesn’t take too kindly to “smart-arses” who shout out requests for Bryan’s “Summer Of ‘69”, or anything else from that man’s catalogue. Born David Ryan Adams, November 5, 1974, and before turning into a music industry brat and hanging around the likes of Sir Elton and Jon Bon Jovi, RYAN ADAMS used to be a highly-respected and low-key member of America’s thriving mid-west alt-country scene and the co-founder of the excellent WHISKEYTOWN; from fifteen he had led arty-punk act, The Patty Duke Syndrome. After his split with W-Town, however, ADAMS cleaned up his act, stopped partying and became increasingly friendly with others within the country establishment. Luckily for us, he still manages to write songs that could smash most of today’s modern singer-songwriter types into tiny pieces.
His solo debut, HEARTBREAKER (2000) {*9}, was a fine example of this: recorded in seventeen days and featuring the likes of EMMYLOU HARRIS, GILLIAN WELCH and her husband David Rawlings, the album was full of sweetness, bitterness and of course, downright heartbreak. `To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)’ was a good ol’ country rock’n’roll track, while `Amy’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The BEATLES’ “White Album”. But most impressive of all was the sheer poignancy shot through most of ADAMS’ songs, whether it be the solo-istic flare of `In My Time Of Need’ or HARRIS’s timely western vocals on the haunting `Oh My Sweet Carolina’ (perhaps one of the greatest songs of ADAMS’ career, if not one of the greatest ballads ever written). The set also displayed an impressive array of songs and not one would fail to move the listener.
After the critical acclaim of the set, ADAMS began work on a more commercial affair, GOLD (2001) {*7}, a record which saw him moving slowly towards the mainstream and abandoning his lo-fi country roots. To call him a sell-out would be unfair, but ADAMS certainly must have been tempted by the overground to issue such an MOR-tinged, conformist album. Some tracks still hit through; especially in America where it cracked the Top 20. For instance `Rescue Blues’ and the sweet ballad `When The Stars Go Blue’ lived up to the standards of his previous set, but his self-penned single `New York, New York’ (accompanied by a terrible “nostalgic” music video), was strictly for the Starbucks generation and could’ve easily featured on BON JOVI’s latest effort.
To try to win back some of his indie street-cred, somewhat lost after “Gold”, ADAMS moved to releasing the quietly admirable demos and rarities-type compendium, DEMOLITION (2002) {*5}. Comprised of hastily written and recorded tracks, the album boasted a number of stripped down songs, which, with better production, could’ve proved to be a hit with his newfound mainstream audience. Whereas “Gold” saw him isolate his mawkish fanbase, this set did the very opposite – not sitting well with the people who made `New York…’ a hit. Nevertheless, a fine addition to his back catalogue and proof that the prolific troubadour was capable of some pretty good stuff. The same could not be said for Ryan’s (or Warren Peace’s) pseudonymous punk project, The FINGER. Alongside former D GENERATION-turned solo singer-songwriter, JESSE MALIN (aka Irving Plaza), bassist Colin Burns (aka Jim Beahm) and drummer Rick O’Shea (aka Johnny T), the supergroup smashed up the rulebooks for the one-off album, WE ARE FUCK YOU / PUNK’S DEAD LET’S FUCK (2003) {*4}.
It was back to the day-job come the release of the shaky ROCK N ROLL (2003) {*5}, a croaky WHITE STRIPES-meets-PAUL WESTERBERG-type record that echoed all his heroes and counterpart rivals rolled into one big ball of confusion; the titles `This Is It’, `1974’, `Wish You Were Here’ (penned with Brad Rice) and `The Drugs Not Working’, tell their own story.
The “official” follow-up to Gold, ADAMS wanted to issue his “death-threat to himself” album, “Love Is Hell”, as the set which would follow hot on its heels. Not if record bosses at Lost Highway had anything to do with it; they rejected the album and sent ADAMS back to the studio; the result being the aforementioned “Rock N Roll”. Slightly hurried and, in some parts, sounding rather drab, the much rawer, depressing LOVE IS HELL {*6} was finally available when it was delivered in two parts at the end of 2003.
Sounding somewhat like an ode to those rainy-day SMITHS albums Ryan was so much in love with (and with a production by SMITHS collaborator John Porter), the two mini-LP’s delved deeper into his dark psyche and with some impressive submissions aside, one couldn’t help wonder if Lost Highway had a point when they noted that the album was “too bleak”. ADAMS’ long-awaited break into the UK Top 30 singles chart came in summer 2004, via a cover rather than an original, and a strange choice at that: OASIS’s `Wonderwall’.
Making up for a quiet 2004, the former WHISKEYTOWN man went back to his roots on two (very) long-players, COLD ROSES {*7} and the full-on country set, JACKSONVILLE CITY NIGHTS {*7}. Released within months of each other in 2005, they featured ADAMS’ new outfit The Cardinals, backing up Ryan’s JACKSON BROWNE-meets-ROY ORBISON holler with the kind of stone-country he’d steered clear of in recent years. His public responded in kind, sending both records into the middle reaches of the charts. ADAMS over-reached himself however, with a third successive album, albeit a solo single-disc set recorded in August 2004, entitled 29 (2006) {*5}. Anybody with even a passing familiarity with the GRATEFUL DEAD would recognise the tongue-trippin’ chug of `Truckin’’ in the opening title track, even if elsewhere the magpie troubadour exhumed the spectres of both JEFF BUCKLEY and his dad TIM…
Released as a solo set but backed by The Cardinals (guitarist Neal Casal had replaced Catherine Popper and bassist Chris Feinstein took over from J.P. Bowersock) plus a guest spot from SHERYL CROW, EASY TIGER (2007) {*7}, catapulted the singer back into the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic. A conceptual country-rock set with a tinge of anthemic arena rock (`Halloween Head’ for instance), Ryan plied his craft with a few sentimental tearjerkers in `Everybody Knows’, `Two’, `I Taught Myself How To Grow Old’ and `Tears Of Gold’, while bluegrass came up for grabs on `Pearls On A String’.
Re-instating The Cardinals as billed backing group (Casal, Feinstein and long-termers Jon Graboff and drummer Brad Pemberton), CARDINOLOGY (2008) {*7}, confirmed ADAMS was willing to swap alt-country for alt-rock (and vice versa), easing delicately between the likes of the graceful `Let Us Down Easy’ and `Cobwebs’ to the U2-esque `Magick’ or the JACKSON BROWNE-esque `Born Into A Light’.
A nasty habit of releasing albums out of context with his latest records, the 2007-recorded III/IV (2010) {*7} was given the commercial cold shoulder from many of Ryan & The Cardinals loyal fanclub. Split into two discs where one might’ve done, ADAMS took the alt-rock alter-ego approach for this arena-type album. Now shot of his drinking demons and back-on-track with just about everything his Midas mind touched, the contrast between The REPLACEMENTS-esque `Stop Playing With My Heart’ and the INTERPOL-ish `Ultraviolet Light’ was cavernous, while on disc two, `No’ and `Numbers’, shot out from the hip.
Disbanding The Cardinals when Feinstein passed away in December ’09, and signing to Capitol Records, the solo ADAMS grafted on his HENLEY-via-BROWNE skin for his umpteenth set, the Glyn Johns-produced ASHES & FIRE (2011) {*7}. Easily his best seller since the mid-00s (reaching transatlantic Top 10 status), ramblin’ Ryan played to his imaginary honky-tonk audience in a horizontal singer-songwriter fashion; Benmont Tench and NORAH JONES stretching out helping hands on keyboards and harmonies. Appealing to acolytes of doom and gloom, ADAMS served up some glazy-eyed sombre moments such as `Dirty Rain’, `Do I Wait’, `Invisible Riverside’ and `I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say’. Almost awe-inspiring and, as always, straight from the heart – oops!
Eponymously naming an album has always been a risky one for established artists, so with transatlantic Top 5 set, RYAN ADAMS (2014) {*7}, it just had be worth its admission price. From its Heartland and Americana roots, one could hear traces of TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS (for the gloriously cool `Gimme Something Good’), DON HENLEY (`Stay With Me’), JEFF BUCKLEY (`Kim’), BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (`I Just Might’) and JOHN MELLENCAMP (`Trouble’) – or a magpie melange of all. But that’s not to say this was a bad thing, just ADAMS rolling along regardless of his sonic candy credentials; he can’t change what the good Lord gave him.
On the back of a low-key, career-spanning double-set, TEN SONGS FROM LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL (2015) {*6}, one had to hand it to ADAMS for pushing out the envelope on quick-fire studio follow-up, 1989 {*6}; released into the charts almost half a year on. A brave man, or indeed a foolish one, tempting discerning followers to reconsider their loyalty to alt-rock and the man himself, a guilty pleasure covers set of the chart-topping TAYLOR SWIFT album was something of a curious anomaly – no matter of one’s prior concerns.
Taylor’s “pop” record of the previous year, re-imagined and reinterpreted by ADAMS in a full-blown SPRINGSTEEN-meets-SMITHS aplomb, the joke wasn’t quite as funny anymore, but somehow the boy with the thorn in his side started something he could finish; it was initially an EP of 4 songs turned into a full-blown song-by-song 13 tracks. An unpredictable ADAMS gave a fresh lease of life to Taylor’s flip-side concept, adding a melancholy college-cool concession to the likes of `Welcome To New York’, `Blank Space’, `Bad Blood’, `Shake It Off’, `Out Of The Woods’, `Wildest Dreams’ et al. Just makes one wanna search out the SWIFT set – or, better still, purchase it for your daughters/granddaughters and inquire from a distance.
© MC Strong 2002-2006/AS/MCS // rev-up MCS Nov2013-Sep2015

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