Posts Tagged With: Bloodshot Records

Fifteen years of “Heartbreaker”

HeartbreakerHere’s another reminder of just how much time has slipped away since the Whiskeytown era: Today marks exactly 15 years since the release of Heartbreaker, Ryan Adams’ first solo album. Even though the band hadn’t “officially” broken up at that point, and its in-limbo album Pneumonia wouldn’t be released until the following May, I’ve still always thought of Heartbreaker as the official end of Ryan’s Whiskeytown period. He was certainly talking about Whiskeytown in the past tense in the No Depression magazine feature I wrote for Heartbreaker’s release. And a year later, the mainstream was in the process of finally discovering Ryan with his second (and inferior, at least to me) solo album Gold.

Here’s a pretty solid track-by-track dissection. I am a little embarrassed to admit that, as noted in chapter 12 of “Losering,” my initial reaction to Heartbreaker at the time was disappointment that it didn’t have any of the astounding material I’d seen Ryan play live during his fall 1999 shows (“Hey There Mrs. Lovely,” “Oh My Sweet Valentine,” “Born Yesterday” and other songs you can find nowadays on bootlegs like Destroyer). But that feeling didn’t last because Heartbreaker was and is extraordinary — a perfect snapshot of Ryan finding himself artistically at a moment when his life and career seemed to be falling apart. I still think it’s the best of his officially released solo albums, and it would have outsold Gold by multiples were there an ounce of justice in this world. At least it’s the top-selling album in the history of Bloodshot Records, so that’s something.

Ryan himself has had some harsh and flippant things to say about Heartbreaker over the years, including this dismissively withering 2006 self-assessment:

If you are a redneck or want to be disappointed with me buy Heartbreaker. But it’s utter shit and I didn’t mean a word of it.

Maybe he really meant that. But Ryan says a lot of things, and I think it matters more that a decade and a half later, he still plays Heartbreaker tunes like “Come Pick Me Up” and “Oh My Sweet Carolina” onstage pretty much every night. And it seems as though his feelings toward Heartbreaker have softened just a bit. In the wee small hours of this morning, Ryan tweeted this:

Happy 15th Anniversary, Heartbreaker!!!

You’re too long, overly earnest & a lil’ wordy but damnit you’re all mine.

That’s fair. So here’s to Heartbreaker — and the ongoing hope that the heartbreak kid has still got another record like that in him.

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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” — take a listen to the stream on Pitchfork — 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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Photoshopped spaghetti in the mirror

BSfotoshopI’m in the midst of a hectic stretch right now, but I wanted to share a couple of quick Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown-related tidbits that turned up this week. First up is a poetry blog called Tweetspeak, which publishes a monthly musical playlist as a thematic poetry-writing prompt. June’s theme is “Mirror, Mirror” — and the song of the same name from Whiskeytown’s 2001 Pneumona album is the first of eight tracks listed alongside mirror-titled songs by Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, RJD2 and others. Some of the poetry this prompted is truly beautiful and inspired, too, well worth checking out.

Speaking of inspirational, dig the cool little piece of genius on the right here. Bloodshot Records (former label home of Ryan’s still-out-of-print 2000 album Heartbreaker) is conducting The Eddie Spaghetti Photoshopped Into Anything Challenge; and this is Whiskeytown’s drummer-turned-artist Skillet Gilmore’s entry, featuring the one and only Chip Robinson. The contest deadline is next Friday, June 14, with Supersuckers frontman Spaghetti himself selecting one winner and fans selecting the other via “Like” votes.

If anyone other than Skillet wins this thing, I’ll be stunned…

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Memories of South By Southwests past: Whiskeytown and Jenni Sperandeo

supabroadThis week will take me to Austin, Texas, for South By Southwest, the big annual music-industry hootenanny I’ve been attending for 26 years (check here for dispatches I’ll be filing for the paper). It’s a time and place that inevitably brings back memories of Whiskeytown because Austin during SXSW served as the setting for some key events in the “Losering” story, including the band’s big coming-out show in 1996 (see Chapter six); Ryan Adams making the deal for Bloodshot Records to put out his first solo record in 2000 (an event that happened in a bathroom — see Chapter 12); and the 2001 dust-up that inspired Ryan’s Gold song “Harder Now That It’s Over” (see Chapter 14).

But my most vivid personal SXSW memory of Whiskeytown is one of those small moments you remember without trying, or even really even knowing why you do. I was walking down Eigth Street in Austin’s downtown club district in 1998, when someone in a parked car waved me over. That turned out to be Jenni Sperandeo, who was then Whiskeytown’s co-manager.

“Get in,” she said. “I’ve got something you need to hear.”

So I did and she fired up a cassette tape of something Whiskeytown had recorded over Christmas; a scathing rocker that was the least twangy thing I’d ever heard them do. But it was great and I was pretty blown away. A desire to seize the tape and flee briefly flitted through my mind, an impulse I restrained. Later, however, I found myself wishing I’d made off with it. That was the first time I ever heard “Rays of Burning Light” from Whiskeytown’s Forever Valentine, one of Ryan’s greatest “lost” albums. Fifteen years later, it remains unreleased, so thank God for bootlegs.

Jenni and I talked for a bit that night before I resumed my club crawling, and in my memory the conversation was pretty upbeat. There still seemed ample cause for optimism about Whiskeytown at that point, even though Strangers Almanac hadn’t been a hit and the band was well into its revolving-door-lineup period. But they had just played a triumphant “Austin City Limits” taping that spring, and Ryan was still writing great songs. It seemed like only a matter of time before they would break through.

Alas, what none of us knew in March of 1998 was how much closer Whiskeytown was to breaking up than breaking through. Two months later, it was announced that Universal was buying PolyGram, a merger that would eventually liquidate Whiskeytown’s label and put the band into limbo; and Jenni would be out as Whiskeytown’s manager by that fall, dismissed in the wake of a semi-disastrous tour opening for John Fogerty (see Chapter 11).

All these years later, Jenni still works in the music industry. She became president of Dangerbird Records in 2012 — a label whose roster includes Fitz and the Tantrums, Butch Walker, Silversun Pickups and other notables. Her memories of Ryan and Whiskeytown are, shall we say, complicated. Not without fondness, but also rather jaundiced. When I got Jenni on the phone in 2011 to interview her about her time managing Whiskeytown, she had plenty to say, going back to Ryan begging her and Chris Roldan to manage his band almost as soon as they met.

At first I was, “You people are nuts. You’re great but you’re a kid and also crazy”…It was difficult to know who [Ryan] was at that time. He was self-mythologizing from the very beginning. Even as I was talking with him, I’d be thinking, “Well, there’s a very thick layer of bullshit on all of this except for the fact that you’re very talented.” He’d say all this shit about himself and his family and where he’d come from, a great deal of drama, but it was hard to tell if any of it was true…Me being a girl, I think he felt like he could stare soulfully into my eyes and get his way. He probably did, owing to my youngness and the stupidity of it all. Maybe a little less with Chris, but he was not as tied up with them as I was.

For all that, Jenni really believed in the band and the music. That was enough to make her willing to put up with it all.

It was challenging in some ways, but they were such a great band. What gets lost in translation about Ryan and how he ended up where he was was how great Whiskeytown was. I don’t know that he’s ever had that good a band around him, and that was the last time he had to take input from other people. I think Phil [Wandscher] gets lost a lot, he’s why they didn’t sound like just another rock-leaning alt-country band from that time. It’s not like Caitlin was a strong personality with him in that way. He encouraged her to be serious about it, and I don’t think she really was at that time. Phil provided the creative push for him there. Even now, I go see Jesse [Sykes] and Phil play and he’s amazing – and left-handed! Dude is a stunningly good guitar player, which Ryan was not. If you listen to those records, it’s that Phil piece on top of Ryan’s voice and the redeeming vocal part from Caitlin that makes it all work.

Maybe Jenni will have something else for me to listen to if I bump into her in Austin this week.

ADDENDUM: Jenni posted this link to her Facebook page with the following note, which engendered a quite-lively discussion:

I still don’t know whether to be embarrassed or proud of this, but it does sure remind me of that tingly feeling you have when you know you are right.

SECOND ADDENDUM (3/18/13): For those who care, I did SXSW 2013 recaps here and here. I’m just glad I didn’t have to contend with this guy.

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Bloodshot’s “Heartbreaker” fire sale

HeartbreakerFor the past dozen years, the most significant (to me, anyway) solo album in Ryan Adams’ catalog has proudly carried the imprint of independent label Bloodshot Records. That’s Heartbreaker, which the Chicago-based label released in September 2000 while Whiskeytown was still in limbo. Chapter 12 of “Losering” recounts the exceedingly modest expectations everyone had for Heartbreaker when it came out; Ryan himself said he was hoping it might sell 20,000 copies, declaring that would be an “amazing” figure to reach. Instead, Heartbreaker has sold more than 20 times that amount — 309,464 copies in America the last time I had the opportunity to look up Soundscan figures in January 2012, plus another 100,000-plus overseas — which makes it Bloodshot’s top seller by multiples, as well as Ryan’s second-best-selling album. I still think it will someday pass Gold to become Ryan’s top-seller.

But if Heartbreaker ever does accomplish that feat, it will do so with a different name on the label. Come midnight, when February turns into March, Heartbreaker will actually go out of print, although probably not for long. Bloodshot released Heartbreaker under a license, which expired last September; and after the “sell-off period” for selling warehoused copies expires at midnight, the album will be unavailable until Ryan reissues it. No word yet on when or where that might be, but I’d expect Ryan’s own Pax Am Records to put it out before too much time goes by. In the meantime, Bloodshot has CD copies available for the cheap, cheap price of $7.50 (vinyl is already sold out).

“I hate to see it go,” Bloodshot co-founder Nan Warshaw says of Heartbreaker. “But it’s a piece of our history, and it always will be.”

ADDENDUM (6/7/13): A dissenting view of Heartbreaker.

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