Posts Tagged With: Bob Dylan

Ryan Adams forsakes electricity

DissapointmentRyan Adams recently played a well-received acoustic bluegrass set with Infamous Stringdusters at last month’s Newport Folk Festival, long-ago site of one of the the rock era’s great confrontations. Newport was where Bob Dylan horrified and enraged folkie purists back in 1965 by putting aside his acoustic guitar to play loud electric-guitar rock backed up by the Butterfield Blues Band. Rock-mythology enthusiast that he is, Ryan made a nod to that history as well as his own penchant for confounding the expectations of his fanbase with the for-the-occasion T-shirts he was selling at the gig:

I would go electric but my fans are already used to disappointment.

The shirts are now available for $19.99 at his online Pax Am store. I’ve gotta say, I like this almost as much as my vintage Ryan Adams Is On Fire T-shirt. And along these lines, there’s a Bob Mould song I’d like to hear Ryan cover.

 

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First impressions: Ryan Adams’ “1989”

Today is release day for DRA 1989, Ryan Adams’ version of all 13 songs from queen-of-the-universe Taylor Swift’s massively popular 2014 album of the same name. Ryan himself is talking about it while the financial press is tallying how much money will change hands. And since we live in an on-demand world where timeliness rules above all else, a lot of my fellow critics are busily cranking out all their hot takes based on 24 hours or less of binge listening. Any record takes time to properly digest, of course, but that seems especially true for a project like this one. Eventually, I hope to have something more thoughtful to say about it. But for now, here are some initial impressions based on as many listens as I’ve been able to manage since getting the tracks yesterday afternoon.

*It’s been both hilarious and disturbing to read all the weird speculation about Ryan’s motives, including this gem of a Facebook post from his long-ago Whiskeytown bandmate Phil Wandscher:

Phils1989take

Oh, Phil…

Only Ryan can say for sure why he chose to do this, of course, but I don’t buy it as either high-tech flirting or crass commercial ploy. If Ryan were truly interested in appealing to Taylor Swift’s massive fan base, taking all the gloss off her pop to reveal its moody essence is a strange strategy because it will just confuse the average T.Swift fan. For example:

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 11.57.19 AM

My take on this whole thing is it’s just Ryan getting excited about a weird idea and running with it, because he can. But really, any of Ryan’s fans who think DRA 1989 is somehow out of character just haven’t been paying attention because it perfectly fits his career. He’s always played covers of pop songs you’d think would be beneath him, and this also isn’t the first time he’s recorded someone else’s album that he admired (see: his version of The Strokes Is This It?). And if you go back a quarter-century, teenage Ryan was already recording cassettes of himself and labeling them (c) PAX AMERICANA. Fast forward to the present day and the only difference is he’s got a real studio and access to famous folks now. Oh, and he’s shortened his label name to PAX AM.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 10.27.58 AM*To my ears, this really does play like a bookend to last year’s Ryan Adams, a downcast and glum album that took the subsequent announcement of Ryan’s divorce from Mandy Moore to fully resonate. Even if I’m still not crazy about Ryan Adams, I do feel like it makes more sense emotionally than it did a year ago. Add in marriage meltdown and depression, and it’s easy to see how 1989 songs about disappointment (“Blank Space,” “All You Had to Do Was Stay”), longing (“I Wish You Would,” “How You Get the Girl”), bad blood (“Bad Blood”) and rising above (“Shake It Off”) might  speak to Ryan more directly than you’d think. He’s taken 1989 and turned it into his own private Blood on the Tracks, sort of.

*Ryan Adams and 1989 are also of a piece sonically, which is not an entirely positive thing. After hearing Live at Carnegie Hall, I concluded that my biggest problem with Ryan Adams was the ’80s production because those same songs were far more effective as unadorned solo acoustic performances. I’m having similar feelings about 1989, wishing he’d stripped it down even further because so far my favorite songs are its least-adorned. Particularly revelatory is the acoustic take on “Blank Space,” which still packs an earworm of a hook — but with the shrill tones of the original toned down, the repetition of the chorus seems less manic than obsessive.

*I really wish Ryan had dialed down the reverb on his voice, which makes him sound murky and distant when it seems like immediacy is what’s called for. I’m imagining these songs with Ryan’s voice unadorned and right upfront, a la “Jacksonville Skyline” or “Lucky Now,” and this version with his voice buried in an echo-filled chasm feels like a missed opportunity.

*I like the “I’m on Fire” version of “Shake It Off.” I also kinda like the ocean and bird songs that begin and end the album, which is reminiscent of The Who’s Quadrophenia (hmm…!) and adds to my curiosity about the cover art.

Overall, I’m liking it so far. More soon, I hope…

ADDENDA (9/22-23/2015): Somehow, there really are people out there who thought it was Bryan Adams covering Taylor Swift (oy); Here’s a piece on the legal logistics of 1989, plus weigh-ins from The New YorkerThe Atlantic, Esquire and U.K. Mirror — plus the dumbest headline about DRA 1989 anywhere. Here’s more dumbassery, and Saving Country Music does not seem to care for it, either. Same for a lot of folks on Twitter, plus this guy. Here’s an interesting take. And you had to know this was coming, “better Taylor Swift covers.” You could almost call it a backlash. But here are kinder words from absolutepunk.net.

MORE (9/24-26/2015): People are already talking about a hypothetical 1989 Grammy showdown (UPDATE, 12/7: which won’t happen). Also, “meh” reviews in Rolling Stone and especially Pitchfork. The latter leads to a pointed question. And here’s someone calling it “a worthwhile disappointment.” But there are apparently “liturgical lessons” to be had from it.

More (Oct.-Nov. ’15): A reach, but an interesting one. Also, Ryan interviews Taylor. In this interview, he compares her to Shakespeare. A good Drowned in Sound review. But The Guardian doesn’t much care for it.

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Political science

BreitbartPut a book out into the world and you just never know where its ripples might surface. For example, “Losering” has been popping up in the conservative political blogosphere, believe it or not.

As you probably know, Ryan Adams covered Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” the other night at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the same hallowed hall where he did not respond well to a heckler’s request for that same song way back when. As you’d expect, this was widely reported in the usual places — but it was apparently a big-enough deal to attract attention from politically slanted sites that dabble a bit in pop culture on the side. So it is that my book is now enshrined on Breitbart.com (the conservative network founded by the late conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart with an agenda of “the destruction of the old media guard”) as background source for an item about it:

In October 2002, Ryan Adams ejected a fan from his concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for repeatedly requesting a cover of Bryan Adams’s “Summer of ’69.” The show was part of the singer’s intimate “Demolition” acoustic tour; the heckler’s repeated shouts for the song were an annoying distraction.

The incident haunted Adams through the years, according to Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown by David Menconi.

“Over the years, the Ryman ‘Summer of ’69’ incident has come to be Ryan’s equivalent of Bob Dylan getting called ‘Judas’ onstage in England in 1966,” Menconi writes. “It’s the one thing that everybody seems to have heard about Ryan, even nonfans.”

Golly. Oddly enough, however, Breitbart.com isn’t the first right-wing site to have cited “Losering.” In the fall of 2013, Ryan got into a Twitter dust-up with Fox News blowhard Sean Hannity. That inspired the folks at Moonshine Carolina — a political blog that lists keywords like “Obama” and “ACA” under the heading “Prohibited thoughts” — to opine on “celebrities as role models,” and to summarize Ryan’s career via my book thusly:

The Jacksonville boy Ryan Adams, who made a name for himself as frontman of Raleigh’s alt-rock band Whiskeytown, has lived every inch of the clichéd rockstar lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock and roll. As David Menconi details in his book Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown, Adams dropped out of school as a teenager to start up the band, and quickly became dependent upon a variety of illicit drugs and alcohol. The band was notorious for smashing up equipment and generally behaving badly. Once, the whole band was fired from a gig in Texas; alcoholism treatment was on the cards for Adams shortly after that. Following more stints in rehab and a successful solo career, Adams has calmed down – he married the very lovely singer and actress Mandy Moore in 2009, they have adopted a puppy, and are both committed to their careers, with Adams running a successful recording studio. Importantly, he has his addictions under control – he made mistakes, and learned from them.

Scoldy! Well, sir, there was a little more to it than that, but so it goes. In any case, we’d better not tell Moonshine Carolina about this.

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Paperback writer

DRAbooksRyan Adams has enough of a literary streak to have written and published a couple of books himself. But here’s an intriguingly book-ish interpretation of Ryan’s music by someone else, an English artist named Simon James — who has rendered the 2014 self-titled album Ryan Adams as if each song on it were a well-worn paperback copy of a novel. The artist has also done similar works based on albums by Roxy Music, Bob Dylan and others.

Given subsequent events since Ryan Adams was released last September, these would probably be some pretty tragic books, too. Still, I’d be more likely to get a print of this to hang on my wall if he’d done one based on Strangers Almanac instead. Just sayin’.

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Reckoning with Ryan Adams’ new album

It’s complicated
I just don’t love you anymore…

— Ryan Adams, “Am I Safe” (2014)


One thing that writing “Losering” did for me was to underscore the futility of music journalism and criticism, especially album reviews. The book forced me to reconsider release-date-vintage things I’d thought and written about everything from the Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown discography in the harsh light of the present, a process that induced a cringe or two. While I think I was more or less right about most of the records, there were definitely some I had significantly underrated at first (especially Love Is Hell) or thought too much of (Rock N’ Roll). And as I was finishing up the book in the fall of 2011, Ashes and Fire came out and I overrated that one, too. I should not have been surprised; just because I was writing it in a book rather than a newspaper review, that didn’t make my snap judgment any more long-lasting.

Something else “Losering” emphasized was the futility of fandom: the fact that if you follow anybody long enough, they will surely disappoint you. Whether I should feel that way or not, I am disappointed in Ryan. I wish I didn’t feel that way because I hate being That Guy — the dock worker in Liverpool who liked The Beatles during their Cavern Club days but thought they sold out when they went on “Ed Sullivan.” Or the guy in Greenwich Village who thought Bob Dylan should have stuck with old folk songs. Or the dude in Asbury Park who thought Bruce Springsteen’s calling was to stay a bar-band journeyman. So maybe giving up what he had in order to get to where he is now was the right call for Ryan; perhaps his upcoming self-titled album will one day be mentioned in the same breath as Rubber Soul or Blonde on Blonde or Darkness on the Edge of Town.

But…I don’t think so.

RyanAdamsCoverSo anyway, yes, Ryan Adams (Pax Am/Blue Note Records) will be released next week; in the meantime, you can listen to a stream of it here, here, here, or here. A few reviews are starting to appear, because right around or even before release date is when outlets tend to be interested in running them. Never mind that the pre-release period, when a given artist does a bunch of interviews (usually saying some variation on the same thing in each one), tends to be the least-interesting part of a record’s life cycle. It’s just how the game goes.

At least Ryan has been his usual swaggering, quotable self in his latest round of interviews, covering all his by-now-obligatory recurrent bullet points. Drug use, check; disavowing outlandish behavior he has supposedly outgrown, check; references to his prolific nature by way of another high-profile addition to his stash of unreleased music, check; tantalizing suggestion that he might actually release one of his “lost” golden oldies, check; and through it all, Ryan’s insistence that he always just goes with the flow — check.

As for the record itself, whatever I think about it at this point, chances are good I’ll think something completely different a year from now. But you know me, I can never shut the hell up even when I know I should. So here are a few initial impressions based on several days of listening to Ryan Adams:

(1) This might be damning with faint praise, but at least Ryan Adams is better than I expected it to be based on the lead single “Gimme Something Good” — a song that I still find pretty ho-hum after a decent amount of listens over the past few months.

(2) Tom Petty’s shadow hangs heavily over this album, which is not an inherently bad thing because Tom Petty is really good. Multiple songs (most notably “Trouble” and “Stay With Me”) have wailing guitar leads echoing Petty’s 1980 signature hit “Refugee,” and the overall vibe and dynamics are very similar to Damn the Torpedoes-era Tom Petty. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Ryan Adams is a more engaging Petty album than Petty’s own current effort Hypnotic Eye. (ADDENDUM, 12/11/14: Stereogum agrees.)

(3) On the other hand, it pains me to say this, but other songs on Ryan Adams seem reminiscent of (God help me) Bryan Adams, especially “Feels Like Fire.” Now if you’re going to evoke Bryan Adams, “Run To You” would definitely be the right song for it. But still…Bryan Adams? Et tu, Ryan?

Elsewhere, “My Wrecking Ball” sounds like Whiskeytown’s “Avenues” as rewritten by Springsteen, while “I Just Might” sounds like a Springsteen demo. And speaking of popular rock-star dudes of a certain age evoked by this album, let’s see what Ryan’s old Whiskeytown bandmate Phil Wandscher thinks:

PhilRA

(4) It took me a while, but ultimately I decided that my main objection to Ashes and Fire was that it was a bit too subdued and monochromatic. While I wouldn’t call Ryan Adams jumpy or anything, it does vary tempos and textures enough to make me think I might someday prefer this one. But ask me a year or so from now.

(5) It’s tempting to read autobiography into anyone’s songs, but especially with someone like Ryan whose songs have been an open book for so much of his career. Maybe he’s turned over a new leaf, in which he’s no longer writing about himself. But if these songs are anything like an accurate reflection of his current mental state, he’s in a mighty grim place nowadays — and spending a lot of time in his own head. The opening couplet on the album, from “Gimme Something Good,” pretty much sets the tone: I can’t talk/My mind is so blank/So I’m going for a walk/I’ve got nothing left to say…

“I Just Might” is no cheerier: Everything’s broken/In my mind/Ain’t no place to run/Ain’t no place to hide. And “Shadows” likens the space between the singer’s ears to prison with a “field of razor wire” that “comes a little closer.” By the end, he’s “Tired of Giving Up” and decides to “Let Go.” And so he does.

(ADDENDUM (1/24/2015): In light of the two paragraphs above, this is not surprising.)

(6) 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.

And that, dear reader, is why I’m disappointed (though not quite as harshly so as this guy).

ADDENDUM (8/28/2015): I don’t agree with this, but it’s a good take.


EthanReckoningMeantime, I actually do have a current favorite Ryan record, sort of, an album that unobtrusively slipped into the marketplace last month. That would be The Reckoning (Three Crows Music) by Ethan Johns, a mate of Ryan’s who has produced a significant chunk of his post-Whiskeytown solo career (Heartbreaker, Gold and 29). In a role reversal, Ryan is listed as producer of The Reckoning and also credited with drums, bass, electric guitar, synthesis and “Trash can.”

There’s not much trashy about this, though. Understated and emotional, The Reckoning is a song cycle about a young immigrant on the frontier in pre-Civil War America. But never mind the storyline. This brooding little record has a lovely atmosphere that seems fragile but is powerful enough to linger and draw you in. Imagine Heartbreaker if Nick Drake had made it; take a listen here and see what you think.

I’ll keep listening to both these records, of course, and I’ll continue paying attention to Ryan for as long as he’s making music (yeah, even when he’s just goofing off). But down the road, I’m fairly certain that The Reckoning will be the record I’m still interested in hearing.

ADDENDUM (9/9/14): Ethan Johns interview.

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GQ says Brian Adams, I say Ryan Adams, let’s call the whole thing off

Oh, GQ magazine. How do you go from bad to worse? Well, you do a listicle in which actor Rainn Wilson details his “10 Essentials,” including a Jura Espresso Machine, Orson Welles and “Songs Played By Sad, Intelligent Men With guitars.” Given the company below, the name between Josh Ritter and Bob Dylan is almost surely supposed to be Ryan Adams. Alas, GQ glitched it as “Brian Adams” (and also misspelled both the Lumineers and Elliott Smith). But the great thing about the web is you can correct flubs like this, which GQ did several hours after this went online — except they compounded their mistake by changing it to not to Ryan, but his birthday doppleganger Bryan Adams. Noooooooooooooo!

GQglitch

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Ryan Adams will always love you though, New York

Like lots of folks who grew up in small-town America, Ryan Adams has always had a crush on New York, as evidenced by his oft-covered song that takes the city’s name for its title and metaphor of a bittersweet farewell. And lately, a Ryan quote about Woody Allen’s favorite town has been making the online rounds as part of a Thought Catalog compendium of the “50 Greatest Quotes About New York City.” The list includes bon mots from Bill Murray, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, Joan Didion, Charles Barkley and Lady Gaga, among other notables. That’s pretty heady company, and Ryan holds his own with a quite-nice summation:

RyanNYC

But I have to say, I still prefer what Ryan had to say about the city back in the fall of 1999, when he signed off an e-mail as follows (a quote that can be found in Chapter 11 of “Losering”):

new york is 58% and a dream. my best to you.

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JamBands.com abides

JamBandsAnother nice “Losering” review has turned up, penned by Brian Robbins on JamBands.com (a site with the tagline, “The Groove Abides” — gotta love that “Big Lebowski” reference). I agree with his comparison of Ryan’s North Carolina to Bob Dylan’s Minnesota as “a place to flee; something to be put behind and mostly forgotten.” And I like his conclusion, that the book gives readers “an opportunity to go back and burrow into that mid-’90s period of twang, crunch, and spilt-beer beauty known as Whiskeytown.”

Check it out here.

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Somewhere betwixt and between Shania Twain and Bob Dylan

Oh, the peculiar things you find on the interwebs. Like “Losering” turning up on GutsyBooks, a site I’ve never heard of. But GutsyBooks has a promising statement of purpose right at the top of the page: “We crawl the web for the best books and rank them using a language processing algorithm.” Okay, then.

The site breaks it down by category, ranking “The Best Bioelectricity Books,” “The Best Network Programming Books” and so on. One GutsyBooks list is “The Best Country Music Books,” where my book comes in at No. 17 with a score of 0.71; which means…well, you tell me because I have nary a clue.

There’s nothing about that on the site, or anywhere else I could find in a few minutes of searching online. But “best” and “language processing algorithm” imply that the ranking is based on worthiness rather than popularity, right? So is that algorithm taking stock of what people are writing about books online, or the books themselves? And is that ranking fixed, or changing? Your guess is as good as mine.

While I have no idea what that 0.71 means, I can tell you that it’s just a fraction of the top score — the 3.64 earned by Chely Wright’s 2011 memoir. It’s also well behind books by Shania Twain, Kenny Rogers, Pamela DesBarres and George Klein, a member of the late Elvis Presley’s “Memphis Mafia.”

My score does, however, come in 0.14 ahead of “Lyrics: 1962-2001” — by some dude named Bob Dylan (No. 23, at 0.57). Ya just gotta love it.

GutsyBooks

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Where were you on Sept. 11?

One of the most bucolic, carefree days of my adult life was Sept. 10, 2001. It was an eerily beautiful fall day, just like it is again today, and a Monday. I took the day off from work to play in a charity golf tournament with some pals, which was a blast, and afterward we all stuffed ourselves with barbecue long into the evening. I made it home in time to watch the Denver Broncos stomp the bejesus out of the New York Giants on “Monday Night Football.”

Indeed, about the only disquieting moment of that day involved Ryan. His big Gold album was coming out in a few weeks, and despite all the buzz, I didn’t much care for it; some decent songs, including “New York, New York,” but most of it just didn’t move me. On the drive to the golf course, I told a mutual friend that I was not relishing the prospect of writing my first lukewarm review of one of Ryan’s works. He suggested I just not review it, but I didn’t feel like I could duck this one.

The next morning, my opinion of Gold slipped way down the list of important things because the world ended. I was in the kitchen tending to breakfast dishes when the phone rang. It was Leigh, my then-wife, who was on her way to Chapel Hill to speak to a class, calling to say she’d heard on the radio that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. Wow, that was…odd. So I walked into the den and turned on the television — just in time to see a plane hit the second tower in real time. Although it took a minute for what I’d just seen to register.

What, they got this on film?…Wait a minute…They’re…BOTH on fire?…WHAT THE???!!!…

The rest of that day was ghastly, and I felt like I was in a fog. I went to the newsroom but couldn’t focus on anything, until I spied the Bob Dylan album that had just come out that day; Love and Theft, sitting on my desk. So I fired that up, and suddenly the world made sense again. It was all still beyond awful, of course. But listening to Love and Theft was calming, in an odd way, because it conveyed a sense of just how such terrible things could happen. Context. On that horrible, brightly sunny Tuesday, that was about as good as it was going to get.

And so I wrote this, which ran in the paper the following Sunday. Meanwhile, there was comfort of a different sort to be had in Ryan’s “New York, New York.” As David Browne wrote in Entertainment Weekly a few weeks later:

Heard in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center, “New York, New York” now feels cathartic and healing in ways it never did before. The same is true of the rest of Gold. In light of this recent horror, the album’s sprawling tour through American music, from coast to beer-stained coast, is like a diner full of comfort food…And Adams, for all the hand-me-down nature of his music and his degenerate-rebel image, sounds like a healer.

Eleven years later, they’re both worth another listen. Meanwhile, Dylan has another new album out on Sept. 11. I should probably go pick it up. Meantime, this is also worth another read.

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