The Hudson Guide to Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown
Rock and roll needs more artists like Ryan Adams.
Yes, it’s frustrating to be a fan of his. He releases too many albums, he changes direction far too often, and his shows are historically unpredictable.
That’s exactly what we need these days.
Too much of what passes for rock and roll these days is predictably mediocre. An artist makes an album every two or three years, and said album is fine-tuned by professional songwriters, computer analysts, marketing managers, and publicists. Not a word is spoken in public that isn’t pre-choreographed by the record label.
Nothing like that occurs in Adams’ parallel universe. Ok, so his most recent album, last year’s Cold Roses, may have come almost a full two years from his previous, 29, but that’s not typical. Generally, he releases a new album before you’ve even become completely engrossed in his previous effort. In 2005, he released three (29, Jacksonville City Nights, and Cold Roses), and it’s not unusual for a calendar year to see at least one album and EP.
All told, he’s released nine albums since going solo in 2000, but that’s not telling the whole story. He’s also released a punk album with buddy Jesse Malin under the moniker The Finger, and his website is full of silly rap tunes reportedly recorded during one long late-night bender.
He’s also tossed aside more albums than most artists ever record. Bootleg collectors all around the world have filled their hard drives with collections with such names as Exile On Franklin Street, The Suicide Handbook, 48 Hours, and The Pinkheart Sessions. There are at least ten such collections known to exist; who knows how many other discarded albums are gathering dust in some tape vault?
Being prolific means nothing, however, if you’re just serving up the same old crap from album to album. That’s definitely not the case with Adams. His original band, Whiskeytown, originally came to be known as an Uncle Tupelo clone, but by their second album he was christened as a modern day Gram Parsons for his Stones-y country-rock. Yet that was just a momentary stop, as their final release, Pnuemonia, edged closer to Fleetwood Mac slickness.
Since going solo in 2000, he’s dabbled in folk-ish singer-songwriter mode (Heartbreaker), semi-rocking alt-country (Gold), power pop (Rock and Roll), confessional “tear in my beer” mope (Love Is Hell), and even some jam band-ish tunes that completely frustrated some of his longtime fans (29).
Many “experts” cringe at both the sheer volume of material he releases and the different musical paths he explores. Not this fan. To me, he’s one of the few who is doing exactly what all artists should be doing – following their muse and ignoring the star-making machinery of the business.
I’ve always said that if I ran a record company I’d rather have an artist that consistently sells a couple hundred thousand copies of each release for an extended period of time than one who has one blockbuster album and then can’t give away their later releases.
Adams is just following the path of other classic songwriters whose various moves cannot be predicted. Bob Dylan has had so many “careers” that it took eight actors to portray him in “I’m Not There”, and has been known to not only change direction from album to album but to inexplicably decline to include some of his greatest songs.
Neil Young is also known for shelving entire albums, and for not following record company advice. After releasing the biggest selling album of 1972, Harvest, he followed it with arguably the worst album of his career, Time Fades Away, and Tonight’s the Night, now considered a classic but at the time was deemed an unreleasable record that lingered in the Warner Brothers vault for two years.
Some of Young’s best material, including albums such as Homegrown and Chrome Dreams, has never made it out of his backyard “shed”. In fact, there is now so much unreleased material in Young’s vault that his planned Archives set is reportedly going to be a multi-DVD/Blu-Ray-only release.
Adams has promised a similar (but smaller) box set of his unreleased material sometime in the next year or so, but until then his fans have something potentially cooler to purchase. As part of their “Deluxe Edition” series, Universal will be releasing a double disc version of Whiskeytown’s second album, Strangers Almanac. Along with Son Volt’s Trace, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and Steve Earle’s I Feel Alright, Strangers Almanac was one of the greatest moments of the late 90’s alt-country mini-revolution and officially put Adams on the map as a songwriter to watch.
The first disc of the two-disc set will feature the original album plus five tracks recorded live on Los Angeles radio station KCRW on September 10, 1997. Three of those tracks are album cuts ("Houses On The Hill", "Turn Around", "Somebody Remembers The Rose") and two were not on the album ("Nurse With The Pills", "I Don't Care What You Think About Me").
The 20 tracks on disc two include outtakes and alternate tracks from the Strangers Almanac recording sessions and demo sessions. A few of them were issued separate from Strangers Almanac at the time: "Theme For A Trucker", "My Heart Is Broken", and alternate versions of "The Strip" (a.k.a. "Dancing With The Women At The Bar") and "Houses On The Hill" comprised a double 7-inch gatefold release by Bloodshot Records in early 1997, and "Ticket Time" and Alejandro Escovedo's "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over" were on a limited-edition bonus EP packaged with initial pressings of the Strangers Almanac CD.
Aside from "The Rain Won't Help You", other cover songs on the second disc include Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams", Gram Parsons' "Luxury Liner", and a Ryan Adams solo version of Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone".
Previously unreleased outtakes from the Strangers sessions featured on disc two include "Kiss & Make-Up", "Indiana Gown", "Barn's On Fire", "Whispers" (a.k.a. "Streets Of Sirens"), "Breathe", and "10 Seconds Till The End Of The World".
Disc two also includes alternate studio versions of Strangers tracks "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight", "16 Days", "Somebody Remembers The Rose", "Avenues", and "Turn Around".