God, I love Canada

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 3.35.54 PMFor the first year or so that “Losering” was out, checking my sales ranking on Amazon was a daily (oh, who am I kidding, several times a day, at least) ritual, even though it’s a bad idea. I was finally able to wean myself off of it after the book dropped to ranking consistently below No. 100,000, and I rarely check it anymore. It’s as humblingly low as ever here in the U.S. (yes, I just looked); but today, on a whim, I decided to check it on Amazon Canada for the first time in a while. Lo and behold and lookee here, for whatever reason it’s somehow back up to No. 1 again on the country book list up there, ahead of tomes about Buck Owens, George Jones, Gram Parsons and Loretta Lynn.

As Jim Lauderdale might say, now that’s Americana!


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Ryan Adams picks up Bloodshot, while the NC Music Love Army sticks to the plan

BS20Ryan Adams released just one full-length on Bloodshot Records, but that album was a doozy — his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker, which (as recounted in chapter 12 of “Losering”) cracked 300,000 copies in U.S. sales. That’s the Chicago-based alternative-country label’s commercial high-water mark by far, with albums by Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle and Alejandro Escovedo next in line. All these years later, Heartbreaker remains Bloodshot’s top seller even though the label’s licensing agreement for it expired last year, which means that Heartbreaker is officially out of print nowadays. That probably won’t be changing anytime soon, either. When I inquired with Ryan’s publicist about whether or not a reissue was in the works, the answer that came back was, “There are no plans that I’m aware of” (and she would know).

Nevertheless, Heartbreaker remains a big part of Bloodshot’s history. So it’s no surprise that its songs dominate While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records, a two-disc Bloodshot tribute album set to be released Nov. 18. While No One Was Looking compiles 38 covers of songs from Bloodshot releases, with versions by luminaries including Ted Leo, Handsome Family, Minus Five and the regrettably named (but still quite good) Diarrhea Planet. Four songs on the track list came from Heartbreaker, more than any other album in the Bloodshot catalog:

* “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” — performed by Blitzen Trapper from Portland, Ore. (thanks, Erin!)
* “My Winding Wheel” — Seattle indie-folk duo Ivan & Alyosha
* “Come Pick Me Up” — Superchunk
* “Oh My Sweet Carolina” — San Francisco’s Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers

You can listen to the very fine Blitzen Trapper cover below, and the versions of “Sweet Carolina” and “Winding Wheel” are also both quite lovely. But the real revelation is Chapel Hill punk band Superchunk’s “Come Pick Me Up,” which revs up the original’s dirge pace to a fast and gleeful raveup (stoked by Whiskeytown alumnus Jon Wurster on the drums). Covering Ryan’s Heartbreaker songs is getting to be a thing for Superchunk guitarist Mac McCaughan, who similarly recast “Oh My Sweet Carolina” with his other band Portastatic for another tribute compilation a few years back.



Even beyond the four Heartbreaker songs, Ryan casts a long shadow over the rest of While No One Was Looking. In terms of both songs and performers, the album is littered with Ryan’s former collaborators (Caitlin Cary, Alejandro Escovedo) and rivals (Robbie Fulks, Old 97s). Superchunk isn’t the only act from Ryan’s home state of North Carolina, either; there’s also Hiss Golden Messenger, Dex Romweber Duo and most of all the North Carolina Music Love Army — featuring Ryan’s old Whiskeytown bandmate Caitlin, head Backslider Chip Robinson and 6 String Drag’s Kenny Roby — turning Graham Parker’s “Stick to the Plan” into something like an ironic latterday answer to the old Kennedy campaign theme “High Hopes,” describing a certain political party’s apparent we-know-best attitude:

Don’t pay no attention to what the experts say
Too much intelligence gets in the way
Yeah it gets in the way
You know it gets in the way
And if you wanna be happy
Be like Forrest Gump everyday.

NCMLA14The NC Music Love Army has been busy this fall in conjunction with the upcoming midterm elecitons. One of the nation’s marquee contests is North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis — a brutal and interminable campaign that’s on course to be the most expensive in history, with total spending expected to top a staggering $100 million. To raise spirits, awareness and turnout, the Love Army crew has been putting out new songs that can be heard here. The most notable of the new tunes is an environmental anthen called “Senator’s Lament,” in which Caitlin Cary’s fiddle features prominently. The lyrics are below.

“Senator’s Lament”

There are places in the ocean
They are dark and sacred still
We cannot reach them
But we can ruin them
With a greed no sea can fill.

Oh green mountain, her bones are older
Than the pillars of any town
But we move her with our big plans
Dig out her heart and steal her gown.

Oh Carolina, how I love you
And your ever-changing ways
I didn’t see how much I hurt you
I only hope I’m not too late.

There are children in the harvest
Their backs are bent to rain and sun
And we profit while they’re poisoned
When they fall, don’t no one come

There are places in the ocean
That are dark and sacred still
We can’t reach them, but we can leave them
And we can ask this land to forgive
We can ask this land to forgive
We can ask this land to forgive…

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Old friends: Ryan Adams and Peter Blackstock

RyanPeterSo Ryan Adams played an “Austin City Limits” taping Wednesday night down in Texas. Alas, I was not there. But UT Press American Music Series co-editor Peter Blackstock was, reviewing the show for the Austin American-Statesman, and his presence did not go unnoticed from the stage. Ryan spotted Peter in the crowd during his opening solo acoustic set and gave him a shout-out as founder of No Depression magazine while noting that he’s “looking more and more like Jerry Garcia every day.”

Later, Ryan happened to be looking Peter’s way when he yawned, and he called him out on it: “Peter Blackstock, you come to my show and fucking yawn? What the fuck is that?” That led to Ryan inviting him to go jogging the next day (Peter replied via Twitter that he was game; but no word yet on whether or not that happened). And Peter’s name also came up while Ryan was telling stories about NASA and the band Kiss, with Ryan asking if Peter was getting everything down in his notes. At the end of the three-hour show, Ryan singled out Peter to thank him for coming.

As you can see from the picture above, Peter and Ryan go way back, to the mid-1990s Whiskeytown days, when Peter was putting Ryan on his magazine’s cover. It hasn’t always been friendly, especially when Peter unfavorably reviewed Ryan’s 2001 album Gold by likening it to “Pyrite” (inspiring one of Ryan’s more infamous online blowups, as recounted on page 151 of “Losering”). That came up Wednesday night after Ryan played a version of that album’s “When the Stars Go Blue” so beautiful, it reduced at least one person in the audience to tears. Ryan gave the audience member in question, an Austin musician named Nakia, a hug before declaring that Peter “fuckin’ hates that song” and dubbing him “the Austin Music hall monitor.”

A lesser person (me, say) probably would have recounted at least some of this in the show review. But Peter stuck with the music, and you can read his review here. I’ll be curious to see if any of the banter winds up in whatever “ACL” airs, which should show up sometime in 2015. Meanwhile, based on the Twitter exchange below, Ryan and Peter seemed to end the evening on friendly terms.


 

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Girl at Ryan Adams concert…

How can this craigslist missed connection posting not be a Ryan Adams song? It could almost be the sequel to Whiskeytown’s “Factory Girl.”

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It don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime…

DRAframedNot too long ago, I did a post about an “ASSESSMENT WRITTEN (BY) RYAN ADAMS, HIMSELF,”  in which Ryan purportedly summarized the worth of his own solo catalog in his inimitably self-deprecating style. It appeared to be a legitimate Ryan-penned artifact; and I am happy to report that it’s not only for real, but you can view the original item at an Indianapolis record store called Indy CD & Vinyl.

After hearing from a fellow who used to work at the store, I called up owner Annie Skinner to ask about it. She placed the date of origin as Aug. 3, 2006 — when Ryan played a nearby Indianapolis club called The Vogue with Juliana Hatfield.

“He stops by here pretty much every time he’s in town,” Skinner said. “And, um, he can be pretty messed up. (Note: Perhaps that accounts for the fact that Ryan claimed to be 33 years old at the time he wrote this, when he was actually only 31 in August 2006) I’m sure you know that Ryan will get into relationships with record-store clerks where he’s calling and sending stuff. There was one staff member here he became friendly with, a guy he put on the list for the show and even played a song for. That (self-assessment) was something he did for him.”

The Indy’s staff was kind enough to send along a picture of the framed document, which used to hang on the wall at the store until, alas, it fell and broke; note the bottom left corner of the frame. So they had to dig around a bit to find it. But anyway, here it is.

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What might have been: Ryan Adams goes back to “Jacksonville”

RyanAdamsCoverBelieve it or not, I really don’t go out of my way to be contrary about Ryan Adams’ late-period work. With every record he’s released since the Whiskeytown days, I’ve put in a fair amount of listens, trying to find something to like. And while they all have some merit (or at least a handful of decent songs), overall most of them come up short for me. That goes for the current eponymous album Ryan Adams, which has drawn mostly positive reviews but still strikes me as somewhere between meh and okay. There’s a song or two on it that I’ll find myself humming along with, but for the most part my preliminary conclusion on it from just over a month ago still stands:

A self-titled album, especially by someone who has been around a while, implies a statement-of-purpose declaration of sorts: This is who I am. And what bothers me about “Ryan Adams” is just how generic it is. It’s not bad — in fact, it’s perfectly pleasant while it’s playing — but it also sounds like something that any number of other people could have made. I’d rather hear another record that Ryan and only Ryan could have made. Given his thoughts on his own catalog, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Maybe ever.

draJvilleIf I thought that Ryan could no longer do this kind of work anymore — if he had really moved on from that phase of his life, personally as well as artistically, to the point that it just wasn’t in him — I believe I could reconcile that and move on myself. But then he does something like his latest seven-inch EP, “Jacksonville”-“I Keep Running”-“Walkedypants,” and it just keeps me hangin’ on.

It’s not flawless, of course. “Walkedypants” is one of Ryan’s infamous in-studio goofs, two-and-a-half minutes you’ll never need to hear more than once. The other two songs, however, could be the missing link between Whiskeytown’s dark masterpiece Strangers Almanac and Ryan’s ambitious ornate-pop effort Pneumonia (with a little solo-era Cold Roses thrown in). More than a decade and a half later, he’s gone from sounding older than his years to sounding like he’s finally caught up with himself.

In glorious shades of pop-twang, Ryan sketches out yet another bittersweet lament for the old North Carolina hometown he used to curse. But you can’t tell me he doesn’t love it now, just from the way his voice quavers on the “Oh, Jacksonville” chorus. It’s heart-stoppingly lovely. Then, just to split the arrow in the bullseye, he follows that with another attempt to explain in song why he’s still running away from it after all this time.

I’m faster than the pain
That’s running through my veins
And you can’t break my heart if you don’t know my name
I keep running…

But that’s the thing. Run from something long enough and eventually you’ll find yourself running back to it (“Run To You,” indeed). And close to 20 years since Whiskeytown’s heyday, Ryan can still resonate on that wavelength when he gets a mind to. Had he done a whole album like this, he’d deserve the current round of accolades and a whole lot more. Instead, he puts out a major-label album that sounds like second-rate Tom Petty/Bryan Adams mash-ups while relegating his best work in years — songs that sound like they actually mean something! — to a limited-edition seven-inch release.

You have gone missing from my life…

Ryan Adams is better than Ryan Adams and “Jacksonville” proves it. I really wish I could have picked someone less frustrating as object of neurotic fandom. But for the seven-and-a-half minutes “Jacksonville” and “I Keep Running” are playing, it feels just like old times.

That’ll have to do.

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Ryan and Bryan Adams: It’s a 1984 thing

1984So this week has brought the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual World of Bluegrass festival/convention to Raleigh, which has kept me insanely busy (whew; I enjoy IBMA, and yet I’m also glad it only happens once a year because I need more sleep than this). But I still had an amusing little Ryan Adams moment the other night, listening to a band from Minneapolis called Monroe’s Crossing playing a deadpan bluegrass version of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” — and thinking about past fits Ryan has thrown over that very song. Could not help but giggle, especially given the Monroe Crossing frontman’s introductory description of Bryan Adams as music harsh enough to annoy parents.

What made it even funnier in retrospect was hearing that Ryan himself dipped into the Bryan Adams catalog the same night, performing “Run to You” onstage at a show in Santa Barbara, Calif. Someday, maybe he’ll deign to do “Summer of ’69” and the circle really will close.

Meanwhile, Ryan also recently unveiled yet another 1984-vintage cover, I Want To Know What Love Is,” the super-maudlin and epic power ballad by Foreigner; to go with his earlier Pointer Sisters “Neutron Dance” cover. Given his current Orwellian predilection for that era’s artifacts, can accompanying covers of “Purple Rain,” “Footloose” and “What’s Love Got To Do With It” be far behind?

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Ryan Adams debuts at No. 4

Whatever overall long-term critical consensus emerges on the new Ryan Adams album, this much is already certain: It represents a new U.S. chart peak for Ryan. The album sold a healthy 45,000 copies in its first week to debut at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 album-sales chart for Sept. 27 — right behind R&B singer Jhene Aiko at No. 3 and country singer Lee Bruce at No. 5.

Reaching No. 4 represents a three-spot jump beyond the No. 7 peak Ryan had with both 2011’s Ashes & Fire and 2007’s Easy Tiger.

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Breaking hearts with CMT Edge

CMTEdgeLogoIt probably would have helped “Losering” in the marketplace if its publication had coincided with one of Ryan Adams’ album releases. Alas, that didn’t happen. But this month’s release of Ryan Adams has belatedly reflected a bit of light back onto “Losering,” which has been nice. The latest place for it to turn up is on CMTEdge.com, the Americana section of Country Music Television’s website, which has a list of Ryan’s “10 Essential Songs.”

The author is Stephen M. Deusner, a very fine writer who happens to be the colleague who tipped me off about the Ryan/Bryan typeface similarity (and whose Pitchfork review of the new album Ryan brushed off even though it was quite fair, at least to me). I also like the fact that the entry quoting “Losering” comes right before one of my favorite obscurities in Ryan’s catalog. Check it below.

 

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Ryan Adams gets reckless

Multiple reviewers, including yours truly, have pointed out that some songs on the new Ryan Adams album sound strikingly similar to Ryan’s name/birthday doppelganger Bryan Adams. And in an email discussion, a critic colleague of mine mentioned that the Ryan-and-Bryan similarities extend to the area of typography, too — most notably the cover of Bryan Adams’ 1984 album Reckless (from whence came “Summer of ’69,” a song Ryan hates hearing about).

So I decided to take a look for comparative purposes, and…well, see for yourself. Compare the typefaces and, except for Bryan’s use of italics, they don’t look similar so much as identical. Maybe it’s just coincidence; but don’t forget that Reckless came out in what seems to be Ryan’s favorite year, and Ryan is an unabashed Bryan Adams fan.

No doubt, Ryan will also be picking up the Super Deluxe Edition four-disc box set of Reckless when it comes out on Nov. 25.

ADDENDUM (10/17/14): According to Ryan, the similarities between these two covers are entirely coincidental.

 

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