Author Archives: dmenconi

About dmenconi

Music critic, arts reporter, author of the occasional book; lives and works in Raleigh, North Carolina -- God's country, so please don't drive like hell through it.

“Solo Sounds” — Ryan Adams songs as you’ve never heard them

SoloSounds.jpgA few months back, I heard from Scott Ambrose Reilly, an old friend I first met many long eons ago back when he was managing roots-rock madman Mojo Nixon and answering to the name “Bullethead.” Nowadays, he’s involved in a very cool and offbeat new music series called Solo Sounds, which digitally releases cover versions of classic albums with the songs remade as solo instrumentals. His partner is longtime roots-rock god Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, and each Solo Sounds project comes with an unexpected twist — Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours as played on cello, Bob Marley’s Legend on marimba, Squirrel Nut Zippers co-founder Jimbo Mathus rendering the classic 1984 Replacements album Let It Be as solo blues guitar and so forth.

Scott told me they wanted to give Ryan Adams the Solo Sounds treatment with a set of his songs transposed to piano, an instrument Ryan rarely plays. So they came to me for input on which of his albums to cover, and that turned out to be a deceptively hard decision. The obvious choices would have been either Ryan’s 2001 commercial high-water mark Gold, or Whiskeytown’s 1997 magnum opus Strangers Almanac; but somehow neither felt quite right for this. So I suggested a third option, a Ryan Adams album that doesn’t actually exist: 29 Cold Jacksonville Roses.

As recounted in Chapter 16 of “Losering,” 29 Cold Jacksonville Roses is my 2005 mix for Ryan — an imaginary best-of with songs cherrypicked from the three albums he released that year (Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29). Now I realize that the very idea of carving these albums up like this remains the ultimate act of apostasy in some quarters of DRA super-fandom. Nevertheless, I found it a fun exercise to select a track list and running order, imagining what might have been if these songs had been recorded as a single album-length unit.

DRA2005.jpgThanks to Solo Sounds, the Spotify playlist that was 29 Cold Jacksonville Roses now exists as Selections From Ryan Adams’ 2005 Trilogy, an actual unified body of work. The artist is Bette Sussman, a pianist with a long and illustrious resume — that’s her playing piano on Whitney Houston’s 1992 version of  “I Will Always Love You,” which was one of the biggest hits of all time. She shows a spare and elegant touch throughout Selections, beginning with the Cold Roses kickoff “Magnolia Mountain” and ending with 29’s “Night Birds,” and I think these versions have a nicely elegiac feel and a lovely flow from track to track.

Selections From Ryan Adams’ 2005 Trilogy is the third Solo Sounds album that Sussman has recorded, following a set of Elton John’s greatest hits and Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” soundtrack. The project also served as her introduction to Ryan, who she was not at all familiar with before being enlisted to cover his songs.

“That’s one good thing about this project, learning about people like him,” Sussman says. “I’m now a fan of Ryan Adams and I think he’s quite brilliant. Harmonically, this was a little simpler and easier to interpret than something like ‘West Side Story,’ which was about the hardest thing ever. But I really enjoyed learning this material  and putting my spin on his songs.”

The release date is March 24, and you can check out some samples here.

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Love and happiness with Radiohead

OKCIt’s always amusing when something you wrote a long, long time ago unexpectedly comes back around. To wit, the passage below, which comes from a piece I wrote about Radiohead’s OK Computer more than a decade ago. Try as I might, I’ve just never been able to connect with OK Computer despite years and years of listening. So I decided that OKC is arguably the most overrated album of all time and wrote an essay to that effect for the book “Kill Your Idols” (2004, Barricade Books).

Even now, coming up on the 20-year anniversary of OKC‘s release, I’ll still dust it off now and then for another spin to see if I like it any better. Hasn’t happened yet, I’m afraid. So anyway, someone posted this on Twitter today with the lament, “I wish my grade five projects had been as interesting as this.”

Me too!

 

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Raleigh: Ryan’s town, and Biggie’s, too

biggieOne of my favorite little details in “Losering” is, admittedly, one of the least consequential to be found anywhere in the book. It comes at the end of the chapter about Ryan’s early-1990s arrival in Raleigh from Jacksonville, and it takes note of another recent arrival who also spent a few years in Raleigh shortly before going off to get famous. That was Christopher Wallace, better-known as Biggie Smalls — the rapper Notorious B.I.G., who died 20 years ago this week.

Ryan got in a little trouble with the law back then, but nothing too serious. As for Wallace, who had come South from Brooklyn to try and stay out of trouble, he was arrested for possession of cocaine and marijuana with intent to sell; he copped a guilty plea in exchange for probation and a suspended sentence before moving on. By the time Biggie was murdered in a 1997 drive-by shooting, a few months shy of his 25th birthday, he was among the biggest rappers in the world. You can see a remembrance of his Raleigh days here. Some years ago, I went and looked up Wallace’s arrest report, hoping it might include a mugshot. But if ever a mugshot existed, it was long gone by then.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that Ryan and Biggie hung out together in Raleigh, or even met; there is no evidence they ever did. Nevertheless, I found it kind of fascinating that they were both knocking around the same off-the-beaten-path town back then, under similar hardscrabble circumstances. So this is how Chapter 2 of “Losering” concludes:

Like Adams, Wallace wasn’t shy about telling people he was going to be famous someday. But history does not record whether or not Ryan and Biggie ever crossed paths in Raleigh during their prefame days.

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The Velvet Cloak: It’s gone

vcwreckedVarious landmarks from Raleigh’s long-ago Whiskeytown era covered in “Losering” have been disappearing in recent years, and the latest to go under the wrecking ball is the Velvet Cloak Inn, a longtime “Old Raleigh” institution that has stood on Hillsborough Street in West Raleigh for more than 50 years. The Velvet Cloak used to be one of Ryan Adams’ temporary between-couch residences back in the late 1990s, before he left town for good. But the clock has been ticking since last summer, when the property was sold to a developer who plans to build another NC State student-housing project (similar to the one that displaced The Brewery nightclub further west on Hillsborough Street a few years back).

The clock finally struck this week. Demolition of the Velvet Cloak commenced yesterday, and the main building where the lobby used to be has already been reduced to a pile of rubble. I took this picture this morning; I’d say the whole thing will be gone by the end of the week.

Check out a video of the demolition so far here.

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Ryan Adams’ “Prisoner” — Crazy 8’s

DRACWAK.jpgIn terms of reviews, Ryan Adams’ Prisoner stands as his best-received album in quite some time, picking up glowing notices far and wide (even from the likes of cynical old me). But all that acclaim has not translated into a U.S. chart breakthrough, at least not yet.

In the March 11 Billboard 200 album-sales chart, Prisoner debuts at No. 8 with 45,000 copies sold, which puts him right behind veteran R&B man Charlie Wilson and ahead of Alison Krauss. A top-10 debut is a good showing, but this is still short of the No. 4 debut and peak of 2014’s Ryan Adams, which also sold 45,000 copies in its first week in September 2014; as well as his Taylor Swift 1989 tribute, which opened with 56,000 copies out of the gate in September 2015 to debut/peak at No. 7.

Of course, when it comes to sales figures and chart positions, the long game of where you finish is ultimately a lot more important than where you start. Ryan Adams debuted high but quickly dropped off the charts, eventually selling 134,000 copies in its first year of release. 1989 followed a similar pattern and hit 115,000 in sales.

We’ll see where Prisoner stands a year from now.

UPDATE (3/7/2017): So far, Ryan’s debut-high-and-fall-fast pattern is holding true to form. Week two finds Prisoner plummeting all the way down to No. 54 on the March 18 Billboard 200.

UPDATE #2 (3/14/2017): Falling even faster — down to No. 132 in week three, the March 25 chart.

UPDATE #3 (3/21/2017): Well, that was quick! After just three weeks on the Billboard 200, Prisoner falls all the way off and is nowhere to be found on the April 1 chart.

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Next up: “The Big Book of North Carolina Music”

ncblueNot quite a year ago, I found myself at an industry convention gathering with some of my rock-writing peers, doing what we all do at these things — swapping stories, telling lies and catching up about projects we had in the works, real as well as imaginary. Talking to another writer I knew, I mentioned that I was working on a book proposal for a history of North Carolina music. His reaction was…surprising.

“Yeah,” he scoffed, “that’ll be a short book.”

Words were exchanged, some of them unpleasant; no, it didn’t go especially well. But almost a year later, I am pleased to report that this “short book” has taken a major step from abstraction to reality. I’ve come to terms and shaken hands with University of North Carolina Press for a book with the working title “The Big Book of North Carolina Music,” which will have a format similar to UNC Press’ 2008 best-seller “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.”

uncpressWhile this won’t be an encyclopedic A-to-Z history of North Carolina music, my “Big Book” will cover a lot of ground in its 16 chapters — from Charlie Poole in the 1920s to “American Idol” nearly a century later, with Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis, Arthur Smith, “5” Royales, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, the dB’s and Let’s Active, Superchunk and Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five, Nantucket and Corrosion of Conformity, beach music, 9th Wonder and J. Cole and more in between. It should come in at close to double the heft of my Ryan Adams book “Losering”; and while that still isn’t nearly as long as it could be, it’s nevertheless the most ambitious book project I’ve ever taken on.

But the beauty part is I’ve already been working on this book, piecemeal, for more than a quarter-century. I moved to Raleigh in 1991 to take the News & Observer music-critic job, and my first day was Jan. 15 — two days before Operation Desert Storm started in Kuwait. That was a time when the Worldwide Web wasn’t much more than a gleam in Paul Jones’ eye, back when most people still got their news by reading it on paper or watching the 6 o’clock news.

I must confess that I didn’t come here thinking the News & Observer would be a long-term destination, but it just worked out that way. Back when newspapers were still prosperous, the desired career trajectory was to spend five years or so at a mid-sized paper like the N&O before trying to move up to the New York Times or some other prestige publication. For a variety of reasons, that never happened. Most of the opportunities that came my way over the years felt like they would have been lateral moves rather than upward ones, although I did get a call from the Washington Post in 1999. But that was right after the birth of my twins, Edward and Claudia. At that moment, starting over in a big city was just not in the cards.

So I stayed in Raleigh and I’ve never regretted it, in large part because North Carolina music turned out to be fascinating and beguiling in ways I never imagined before I lived here. When I arrived, I was fairly well-versed in the North Carolina music I’d heard from afar on college radio — Connells, Let’s Active, Flat Duo Jets and such — without knowing much of anything about the history from farther back. So I’ve spent my years here filling in the history, bit by bit, learning as much as I could about North Carolina’s wildly varied music.

Despite the many variations of this state’s music, I do see all of it as of a piece and part of the same continuum — and “The Big Book of North Carolina Music” will, I hope, tie it all together as one story. I’ve spent the past few months going through my archive of stuff to get it organized (see below), and now begins the real work. TBBoNCM will be my side-project for the next two years, the thing keeping me up late nights and weekends and days off. If all goes according to plan, it will be done and dusted by the end of 2018, with publication to follow in 2019. Fingers crossed!

And yeah, whenever it’s done: I’ll be sending an autographed copy to that colleague.

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Ryan Adams, autobiographer

LoseringI still get asked with some regularity what, if anything, Ryan Adams thought of “Losering.” And the answer remains the same as it’s always been: Your guess is as good as mine. More than four years after my book was published in the fall of 2012, Ryan has yet to express an opinion about it in public, at least that I’ve heard (and if anyone out there has heard, I’d love to hear from you).

Funny thing, right now Ryan seems to be in the midst of one of his periods of occasional interest in his old band Whiskeytown, which is something that seems to happen every couple of years. He did an interview recently where he talked hypothetically about a Whiskeytown reunion, which I can’t imagine happening but would nevertheless love to see. And now comes word that, wonder of wonders, Ryan (who has published a couple of books himself) is supposedly going to write his own book about Whiskeytown. This came during a BBC interview in which Ryan said the following:

“I think it’s going to be really funny, but it’s going to be about my sort of first years, with my first sort of known band, Whiskeytown, and all of the crazy funny things that happened. And [it’s] going to hopefully have a thing where some of the other members and I talk about different specific things – I mean it was mostly just really funny and fun.”

I have my own reasons for thinking that’s funny. It was not too many years ago that Ryan claimed he actually didn’t remember much about the old Whiskeytown days, at least as it was relayed to me. In early 2011, I had a conversation with Ryan’s lawyer Josh Grier about whether or not Ryan would agree to be interviewed. “He just doesn’t want to revisit that time,” Josh told me in explaining why Ryan wouldn’t participate, and he also said that Ryan’s memories of his time in Raleigh had grown “fuzzy.” For the record, Josh reportedly remembers that conversation differently and claimed to have used the word “faded” rather than “fuzzy” in describing Ryan’s memories.

Either way, the official story as of six years ago was that Ryan didn’t really remember the Whiskeytown era well enough to talk about it. But now, apparently, he does. Which is perfectly fine, and I’ll be curious to read his take on it. As I wrote in the “Losering” preface, I subtitled my book “A Story of Whiskeytown” rather than “The Story” with this very reason in mind:

Maybe Ryan himself will write that someday. Until he does, consider this to be one longtime fan’s perspective on the most interesting part of Ryan’s career: when he was almost famous, and still inventing himself. In a lot of ways, Ryan himself is the best song he’s ever written.

Let a thousand tales bloom.

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Ryan Adams: Doomsday comes

doomsdayPerhaps the timing is entirely coincidental, but it’s hard not to take this as commentary on what is going to happen at noon (Eastern Time) today. At any rate, now is when Ryan has chosen to unveil “Doomsday” — the aptly titled third single from his upcoming album Prisoner. And while I hadn’t previously thought of “Doomsday” as a political song, its stoic references to standing together as the world collapses in flames seem appropriate on this uneasy day. Take a listen below.

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Ryan Adams’ NC boycott continues

NCupsidedown.jpgIf you were hoping that Ryan Adams’ apparent contemplation of a Whiskeytown reunion might signal a softening of feelings toward his native state, forget about it. U.S. tour dates are starting to come together for this spring, and once again North Carolina is nowhere to be found on his itinerary (at least not yet). A stretch in the first half of March finds Ryan playing two dates each in Virginia, South Carolina and Florida — but none in The Old North State, which he will presumably have to drive through to get from Richmond to Columbia.

This is pretty much standard operating procedure for Ryan on the road nowadays. During his last major stretch of touring in 2014-15, Ryan made it to every adjoining state without playing in North Carolina, where he’s not played a show since 2005. Come June 8, it will be an even dozen years since the last time.

Anyway, looks like road trips will once again be in order for anyone in North Carolina who wants to see a show this go-round. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll do South By Southwest again this year, because I’d really love to hear the new Prisoner songs live. Here’s the schedule so far:

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Whiskeytown reunion? Don’t count on it

wtLike any sensible person, I do my best to resist click-bait in all its forms. But here’s a headline that I just could not resist:

Ryan Adams Says Whiskeytown Might Actually Get Back Together

What a wonderful world this would be if such a thing were possible. I cannot imagine it ever happening (although, if it did, I sure as heck would be lobbying University of Texas Press about updating “Losering”). Anyway, this came up in an interview with Ryan where the primary subjects were his upcoming Prisoner album and current studio project with Liz Phair. And here is what he said in response to a question about whether or not Whiskeytown might someday reunite:

“Well I mean maybe. It’s so funny that you mention [Whiskeytown] because there is something going on with that, but it’s still kind of on the down low,” Adams said. “Some of the folks that were in the band, and myself, feel like we have such funny stories to tell about how and in what way all of that happened and it was so funny it happened to US and I think we were all acutely aware, going ‘Wow, not only are we unprepared, but we suck on some level that we’re also aware of, and we were just having fun, so how do you temper that?’ Also being so young and so green to the thing that is the music business. It’s very strange to think that was sort of a side thing we were just trying out and that would’ve been the first sort of trip. I’m funny in the way where I have a dry sense of humor, and I think I’m probably a little bit more sarcastic than people can realize, especially in print, and I once in a humorous sort of way but I sort of meant it, I said ‘Oh i hate country music’ and there were a lot of purists that said, ‘Oh Ryan Adams has forgotten where he came from.’ Ironic baseball hats across America were probably chiming in on some message board somewhere and I thought, ‘yeah but that’s a funny statement to make cause it’s still pretty rooted in what I do — that sort of Grateful Dead, [Gram], The [Byrds] — finding those influences. I love the storytelling and I love what it is, but I think it’s been so long now if Whiskeytown were to ever try to make a record, and me carrying on with making the music I made from the beginning, before those sort of side things, it would be weird. It could be weird good but I don’t know. If it was the original lineup. We talk every year, a couple times a year. Everybody’s cool. It’s the same as it ever was.”

Same as it ever was, huh? Okay, then, here’s hoping.

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