Posts Tagged With: Ethan Johns

Ryan Adams enters academia’s hallowed halls

SpanisDedRecently I happened across a picture someone posted on social media, of the thank-you page of a Master’s Thesis — in Spanish. Here it is on the right, and the relevant part roughly translates as:

Finally to all my friends for all the support they have given me, you know who you are. And why not…to Ryan Adams, Gary Moore and John Lennon for inspiration when I needed it most.

Figuring there was a story there, I got in touch with the author, a young man named Sebastián Chiwo from San Luís Potosí, México, to ask about his Ryan Adams fandom. As you can see below, he had a lot to say! It’s pretty cool that Ryan’s name is enshrined in an academic document on file at the library at Universidad Autonoma de San Luís Potosí, even though he himself didn’t go to college. Ryan’s fanbase is not just enthusiastic, but geographically widespread and diverse.

The first time I ever learned about Ryan Adams was in September 2001 when I was 13, after the tragedy of 9/11 — from the cool and lovely “New York, New York” video with many shots of New York City and a young guy with an acoustic guitar in his hands. I was very confused because my parents were fans of Bryan Adams, and I didn’t pay attention at first because I was busy learning classical guitar. But I became bored and began learning rock and blues, especially songs by John Lennon.

One afternoon I turned on the radio and heard a very beautiful guitar riff and voice, which the deejay said was “So Alive” by Ryan Adams. From that day, the music of this crazy guy has had an important effect on me, the guitar parts and lyrics both. Soon after was my father’s birthday and my mother gave me money to buy him a present. I went to Sears and saw a beautiful Zippo lighter that I thought could be perfect. But then I stopped in the music section and Ryan’s “Rock ‘N Roll” album was waiting for me. So I bought “Rock ‘N Roll” for me and the newly released “Let It Be…Naked” for my father. I think he enjoyed the CD more than he would have the lighter. After that, I was also listening to “Love Is Hell,” “Cold Roses,” “Easy Tiger” and so on.

Years later, I was in a severe depression. My only reason to live was playing guitar every night, for very little money — just for getting drunk and high. I can’t believe now that I was doing those stupid things. One of the few good memories of that time was playing all the “Love Is Hell” stuff every night; not the songs exactly, but the main guitar riffs. The feelings were the same, “poor guy” is what I was thinking about me. I knew Ryan’s life had been crazy and wild between “Heartbreaker” and “Easy Tiger,” but also sad like mine.

SebastianAfter a series of personal tragedies, I got clean and began working hard in my profession. Ryan’s music was always there, albums like “Ashes and Fire,” “III/IV,” “Orion,” “Ryan Adams,” “1984” and “1989.” They gave me a more optimistic (and weird) way of living. I bought a denim jacket and customized it with logos of OCP, Weyland-Yutany, Nuclear and Misfits Fan Club. Guitar is still an important part of my life and I’m always asking questions about equipment and guitar techniques of the guitar players in Ryan’s bands — Neal Casal, Brad Rice, Johnny McNabb, Ethan Johns, Mike Viola, etc.

ThesisNowadays I am an electronics engineer majoring in instrumentation and control systems, with a Master of Science in electrical engineering with a major in biophotonics and medical optics. I completed both studies in the physical sciences department at the Autonomous University of San Luís Potosí. My personal tribute to and acknowledgement of Ryan is a little paragraph in my Master’s Thesis, “Design and Construction of a Portable Raman System For Non-Invasive Medical Diagnosis.”

Definitely, Ryan’s music is the soundtrack of my life, and he is a very strong influence on me as a person. I commonly cite his statement, “Stay Weird,” in my own life.

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Ryan Adams: “Afraid of Ghosts”

ButchWalkerSo yeah, Ryan Adams’ self-imposed Old North State exile remains in effect, with no sign it will end anytime soon. But even if Ryan himself doesn’t come around here anymore, at least that doesn’t seem to keep any of his associates away. By the close of this coming weekend, in fact, two of his most recent production clients will have headlined shows here within the span of a week.

Following Jenny Lewis in Saxapahaw this past Monday, the next in line is onetime Marvelous 3 leader Butch Walker, who plays Durham’s Carolina Theatre on Sunday night. Ryan produced Walker’s lovely new album Afraid of Ghosts (Dangerbird Records), which (1) was released on a label run by Whiskeytown’s old manager, oddly enough; (2) is, like Lewis’ The Voyager and the most recent effort from Ethan Johns, yet another Ryan-produced record that I find vastly superior to last fall’s Ryan Adamsand (3) has kind an ironic title, given that something like a fear of old ghosts might well be what’s kept Ryan away for so long. The ghost has got me runnin’, indeed.

Anyway, a bit more verbiage about Walker from the paper can be found here.

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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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Ryan Adams and Ethan Johns don’t reach too far

EthanJThere’s still no definitive word on when Ryan Adams’ next album might emerge — maybe October, maybe not. But in the meantime, Ryan’s longtime mate Ethan Johns is releasing his first album under his own name this summer, If Not Now Then When? Ethan is one of Ryan’s collaborators of longest standing, having produced Whiskeytown’s 2001 swan song Pneumonia as well as multiple albums from Ryan’s solo catalog. His father Glynn Johns also produced Ryan’s 2011 album Ashes & Fire.

As for Ethan’s record, Ryan produced and played bass and drums on the first single, “Don’t Reach Too Far,” which they recorded at Ryan’s Pax Am Studios. It’s a stomping garage-rocker with a pulse along the lines of the Van Morrison/Them chestnut “Gloria,” and it looks like that might be Ryan playing bass in the tres-psychedelic video, too. Ethan explained more about how “Don’t Reach Too Far” came to be in a statement:

The recording was completely unplanned. Ryan and I were hanging at his studio in LA and I literally had books of songs on the table. This one came to the surface – a song birthed from a stream of consciousness. I had only ever sung it 3 times – once when I wrote it, and twice in the studio. Ryan kept the second take. It was so immediate – the energy was flying! Ryan just caught it right there and then – kind of like an instamatic photograph. If punk was invented by cowboys in Texas and beamed to a Sears and Roebuck reel to reel in a garage in Long beach in 1963, it might have sounded like this…

That also sounds a lot like the freewheeling, off-the-cuff vibe that prevailed as Ethan was producing Ryan’s first solo album, 2000’s Heartbreaker; see chapter 12 of “Losering” for more on that. And look for If Not Now Then When? on July 30, on Ethan’s own Three Crows Records.

ADDENDUM (5/24/13): Here’s video from Ethan’s album, for the song “Whip-Poor-Will.” Ryan’s name is in the credits, and it sounds like he might be one of the backup vocalists.

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