Posts Tagged With: Aaron Menconi

Ryan Adams’ “Prisoner” as canvass

andyaaronartMy eldest son Aaron is really good at a bunch of things I’m pretty terrible at, like writing poetry. And where I can’t hardly draw a straight line, Aaron is quite adept at drawing, too, rendering semi-surreal figures that look like outlines for the sort of paintings that Chris Mars has done over the years. In this, I think Aaron might take after his uncle, my brother Andy Menconi, a crackerjack multi-media artist and musician (whose heartbreakingly adorable daughter Cleo is also a rising star).

Anyway, Aaron dashed off a sketch inspired by the cover of Ryan Adams’ upcoming album Prisoner (based on the alternative apple version) and gave it to me for a Christmas present, and I really like it. So before framing and hanging it, I took a picture, which is below. At right is what it looks like on the wall alongside a few of Andy’s cartoons; Aaron did the two on the bottom.

ahmdraprisoner

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Ryan Adams shivers and shakes again

drapI think it was this past March when I decided once and for all that I was finally over Ryan Adams. It was after seeing him play at South By Southwest, the first show of his I’d seen in more than a decade and one where I went in expecting an emotional experience. But it really wasn’t. I mean, it was fine — and that’s all, just fine. Yeah, there were a few tug-at-the-heartstrings moments for us old-timers. But most of it felt like a lunch date with a long-ago ex where I had to finally admit that my fond old memories were nothing more than that, memories, and so far in the past that they just weren’t relevant anymore.

The whole experience seemed like a signal that Ryan really had moved on, and I should do the same. That feeling deepened a few months later when Ryan was in the papers excitedly describing his upcoming album as an unholy cross between AC/DC, ELO, BTO, The Smiths and Bruces Hornsby and Springsteen, which sounded like it would be another record along the lines of 2014’s stillborn Ryan Adams (an album I found to be a true test of faith). Then I heard its first song, “Do You Still Love Me,” which gave no cause for optimism. So I had zero expectations when an advance copy of Prisoner came my way a few weeks ago. My plan was to give the album just enough of a listen to dismiss it well in advance of the Feb. 17 release date, chalk it up as one more to ignore and get on with my life.

Except…

…somehow, against all odds, Prisoner is actually really, really good. Not just good but great, the best album Ryan has managed in well over a decade. I’ve been binging on it for weeks now, too, and it’s holding up. All of which makes for a turn of events that I find, well, shocking. It’s not that I thought Ryan no longer had greatness in him — his 2014 one-off single “Jacksonville” still stands as frustrating proof that he has all along — but that I had resigned myself to the fact that he’d never do another album that rang my bell the way he did with those old Whiskeytown records I wrote about in “Losering.”

Ryan being Ryan and me being me, it should come as no surprise that I have a minor quibble or two. Regrettably, the funereal “Do You Still Love Me” remains in the album’s pole position as track number one (although that does make it easy to skip — bonus!). And man, do I still wish he’d give the ’80s-sounding reverb a rest and put that voice God gave him all the way out front more often, dry and unadorned. But that aside, Prisoner is fantastic and evokes a vibe similar to Ryan’s dark 2003-2004 masterpiece Love Is Hell.

Love Is Hell emerged from some profoundly heavy real-life trauma, including the 2002 cancer death of Ryan’s girlfriend Carrie Hamilton. Similarly, the end of Ryan’s marriage to Mandy Moore casts a long and despairing shadow over Prisoner — and the context makes all the sense in the world. I initially found Ryan Adams to be a turnoff because of its musical blankness, but that actually proved to be a good sonic fit for what we now know about Ryan’s emotional state when it was being made (Ryan and Mandy reportedly separated some time before their split was announced a few months after the release of Ryan Adams). In retrospect, 2011’s Ashes & Fire now sounds like contentment with a slight tinge of complacency, leading to Ryan Adams’ depiction of scenes from a dying marriage, with Ryan coming around to the realization that he’d been going numb over time without even realizing it. His subsequent Taylor Swift 1989 tribute felt like a wallow in the depression of it all; and now Prisoner is the equivalent of pulling a scab off and letting the wound underneath air out. From “Broken Anyway”:

It was broken it was fake
I just close my eyes and shake
Last chance before it slips away
Throw it all away
Can’t go back again, what was whatever it became?
Whatever we were, we’ll still be together in some ways.

It’s hard truth and it hurts, but it feels like action borne of clarity and focus. Ryan sounds more like himself (or the person this listener imagines him to be, anyway) than he has in years. The album’s overall tone is subdued but with a few interludes of release and even catharsis, like the thunderous dive-bombing guitar solo that ends the album-closing “We Disappear” — which dissolves into the sound of faint laughter, supposedly from Mandy Moore herself. “We Disappear” seems like an acknowledgement that it isn’t either individual who is disappearing, but the life they had together.

Was I wrong, am I still?
Nobody gets it
And nobody ever will
You deserve a future and you know I’ll never change
We disappear and we fade away.

I think my favorite part of Prisoner falls right in the middle, tracks five and six, starting with “Shiver and Shake” — which has a quietly murmuring, drive-all-night momentum similar to Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. hit “I’m on Fire.” Ryan’s narrator imagines seeing his love with someone else, “laughing like you never even knew I was alive.” And he sounds shocked, not so much at the pain as the realization that he’s still capable of feeling this much pain. Oh, so this is what that feels like… “Shiver and Shake” fades into “To Be Without You,” spare and stoic and graceful, with lyrics that feel like a chunk of his heart carved out and set to music.

Everything you lose will always come find its way out
Every night is lonesome and is longer than before
Nothing really matters anymore…

He sounds utterly bereft yet also matter-of-fact about accepting his lot, seemingly believing it’s what he deserves — and it crushes me every single time I hear it. I just want to give the poor guy a hug and a mug of hot chocolate. Damn, Ryan. Come home sometime and the cocoa’s on me.

I really hate to say this, because it’s not a burden I would wish on anyone. But… Ryan really does seem to be at his best when he’s most forlorn. That is emphatically the case for Prisoner, an album I still can’t quite believe exists — one with real emotional stakes, that really does feel like life or death. I’m blown away.

And just like that, I’m back in love.

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“Losering: The Songs of Ryan Adams” — wish you were here

DMMCBack in Whiskeytown’s prime, I really wanted them to break through to widespread popularity, which seems a bit odd in retrospect. Sure, it would have been fun to watch from close range; but I can’t say why I was rooting for them beyond a vague belief that a large audience was going to provide some measure of validation. There was closure that only a large crowd singing along with “Sixteen Days” was going to provide.

Fittingly and belatedly, that happened last night, sort of. The fine folks at Deep South The Bar in Raleigh put together a tribute show inspired by my book, “Losering: The Songs of Ryan Adams,” and I got to emcee. And about halfway through the show, while members of the band Old Quarter were playing “Sixteen Days” — the song I thought was going to be Whiskeytown’s big breakout hit way back in 1997 — I was hollering along with everyone else in the soldout house and feeling chills about the experience.

Ghost has got me running
Away from you, away from you, awaaaaaay…

It was a truly wonderful night, very much a feeling of being among friends and fellow fans; as much a tribute to the milieu Ryan came out of as to Ryan himself. There were multiple highlights, some of which went like this:

Aaron Menconi, shortly before asking why he started that damn country band.

Aaron Menconi, shortly before asking why he started that damn country band.

The Equivocators — Featuring my dear friend Scott Huler, they kicked things off with three songs from Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street album; “Midway Park,” “Hard Luck Story” and the title track. When Scott got to the “started this damn country band” line, I coached my 18-year-old son Aaron to yell out, “Why’d you do that?”

David Teeter (from the band Martha Ann Motel) — He brought out a couple of more recent Ryan solo songs, “Shadowlands” and “Desire.” And to make the absent guest of honor seem more present, David also played the recording of the infamous Jim DeRogatis voicemail, a legendary moment in artist-critic relations. Guffaws all around.

Ryan Kennemur — Continuing in a humorous vein, Ryan gave a nod to Mr. Adams’ touchier side by belting out a bit of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” Then he got down to business, and his versions of “Turn Around,” “Avenues” and especially “If He Can’t Have You” were outstanding.

John Booker and Rachel Hirsh (I Was Totally Destroying It) — Major props go to John, who did a fantastic job with booking the acts for this show. And he and his bandmate Rachel did great with four songs — “Everybody Knows,” “Call Me On Your Way Back Home,” “Don’t Be Sad” and “Firecracker.” There was an enthusiastic audience sing-along on the latter song, and John needled me a bit for not giving it and the rest of Ryan’s Gold album sufficient respect in the book. Touche! Danny Johnson, who plays in about a thousand other bands, sat in.

Bobby Bryson — I’d never heard Bobby before, and he might have played my favorite set of the night with stellar versions of “A Kiss Before I Go,” “Let It Ride” (also much audience singing along here) and “Carolina Rain.” He showed absolute command instrumentally as well as vocally, and I loved his stage presence. Afterward, he presented me with a business card carrying the slogan Songs that gently rip your heart out. I believe it.

DeepSouthCharles Marshall and Richard Bolton (Balsa Gliders) — They put a couple of Strangers Almanac-era Whiskeytown classics through some unusual paces, quieting down “Waiting to Derail” and rocking up “Avenues.” Very cool, inventive versions that they clearly put some thought into.

John Massengil, George Hage and Danny Johnson (Old Quarter) — The aforementioned “Sixteen Days” sing-along went over great. So did “Jacksonville Skyline” and a lovely reading of “Houses on the Hill.” Meg Johnson sat in on vocals (and also with Jack the Radio). Felt like being at the Brewery back in the day.

Jack the Radio — Speaking of sing-alongs, there was a raucous one on “Come Pick Me Up,” maybe the most exuberant of the night. “O My Sweet Carolina” and “Lucky Now” rounded it out.

Adam Lane and Jeff Mullins — Ryan Kennemur returned for an exceptionally sweet harmony vocal on “Desperate Ain’t Lonely” (which they rehearsed once, outside in the parking lot, and Ryan had to read the lyrics off his phone — perfect). They also offered up a couple of nice rarities, “Onslow County” and “Oh My Sweet Valentine,” which never fails to put a lump in my throat. Last night was no exception.

Ryan Mullaney and Ashley Gray — Two fine singers teamed up to harmonize on “Desire” and the Gold standard “When the Stars Go Blue” (take that, Tim McGraw).

Wylie Hunter (Wylie Hunter & the Cazadores) — Back to Whiskeytown days with “Dancing With the Women at the Bar,” and Heartbreaker‘s “Be My Winding Wheel.” Really glad to hear both.

ChipNYNYChip Robinson (Backsliders) — He sat at the piano and covered “New York, New York,” reading lyrics he’d scribbled out by hand. Fascinating, weird and pretty great, made even moreso because he was wearing a Wu-Tang Clan T-shirt. I snagged the hand-written lyrics for my archive.

Debonzo Brothers — Jeff and Keef with another long-lost favorite, “Hey There, Mrs. Lovely” (yay!), plus Heartbreaker‘s “In My Time of Need.”

Be The Moon — And in the closing slot, this trio from Burlington offered up the resurrected Whiskeytown song “Am I Unstable.” It was fantastic, featuring box drum and an arrangement that Peter Blackstock’s memory placed in the ballpark of the original (which Whiskeytown only played live once, nearly 13 years ago).

All told, the event raised $579 for the Future of Music Coalition. I could not be happier, and prouder of everyone involved. Thanks to all the musicians, and especially to Deep South impressario Dave Rose for making it happen.

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Future Binds: The kids are alright

FutureBindsSo my oldest son, Aaron, turns 18 years old today. Happy birthday, kid, even if you’re too old (and tall) for me to get away with calling you “kid” anymore. But please indulge your proud papa.

Aaron has been playing bass in rock bands for a couple of years now, a process I have watched with a mixture of pride, admiration and apprehension. I mean, he’s my son, so I’m going to think anything he does is pretty great. But I’ve watched so many bands crash and burn over the years, I can’t help worrying.

So even though I’m obviously not an impartial observer, I think Aaron’s latest band is fantastic. They’re called Future Binds, consisting of three-quarters of his former band, Pure Scum; same lineup, except for the guitar player. The picture at right is from the first Future Binds show, which happened back in January at the Berkeley Cafe in Raleigh (yes, the same Berkeley Cafe that figures into the “Losering” preface, as the first place I interviewed Ryan Adams).

I don’t go to every Future Binds show because I don’t want to cramp anybody’s style, plus it can get weird having the music critic from the local paper showing up all the time (not to mention the fact that I’m too old and brittle to participate in the moshpit). But I’ve been to a few of their shows, and they play loud, fast and very brief punk rock; I don’t think I’ve seen a Future Binds or Pure Scum show last longer than about 10 minutes.

Since that Berkeley Cafe debut, Future Binds have gone on the road a few times, including a recent spring-break weekend jaunt up to Richmond and D.C. Aaron has learned plenty about just how little money there is to be made in music; I’ll never forget the text he sent after finding a $10 bill on the street in Asheville, which excited him because it meant he’d be returning home “with more money than I left with!” That counts as a win, for sure.

Meanwhile, Future Binds have also done their first demo recordings, which are available for free download here. The five songs clock in at less than seven minutes, so this won’t take up too much of your time. But it’s quite good, especially the last song, “One Less.” Always nice to have a hook, even in one’s hardcore.

For obvious reasons, I can’t write about Future Binds in the newspaper. But it’s mighty nice to be able to do so here.

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