Posts Tagged With: Spin magazine

Rating Ryan’s catalog, top to bottom

StereogumListSo indications are that Ryan Adams will finally have the followup to 2011’s Ashes & Fire coming out sometime this year. An in-the-studio picture featuring keyboardist Benmont Tench and other players from Ryan’s circle has been making the online rounds; and the fansite Mega-Superior-Gold reports that the album is done, with A&F producer Glyn Johns again overseeing production.

Obviously, it’s impossible to predict where this still-to-be-titled album will rank in Ryan’s overall ouvre. But before everyone starts listening to the new one and assessing it, I’ve been meaning to do a post ranking Ryan’s catalog to date, inspired in part by a Stereogum listing from last year and a recent thread on the Ryan Adams Superfans Facebook page. Like Stereogum, I’ve limited this to officially released full-length studio albums only, and I also didn’t bother with the obvious metal-leaning stinkbombs Orion and The Finger’s We Are Fuck You (both tied for dead last, if you must know). Unlike Stereogum, however, I’m including Whiskeytown’s catalog — because that still stands as Ryan’s best work in my book, and I don’t feel like his career makes sense without it. But that’s just me.

1 — Strangers Almanac (1997). “Losering” includes a chronological discography, in which I write of Strangers, “All roads lead here.” Really, nothing else comes close to this sign of the times for Ryan, Whiskeytown  and the scene he came out of. I freely admit that maybe you Had To Be There for this to resonate as strongly as it does for me. But mark my words: Decades from now, this will be the record of his that people still come back to.

2 — Faithless Street (1996). Beloved kid-brother sidekick to Strangers, Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street is all the more wonderful for its raggedy flaws. The sound of youthful promise, rendered in an old barfly voice.

3 — Heartbreaker (2000). Ryan’s life and band were collapsing around him when he made his first solo album, at a time when he was wondering if he’d have to go back to the world of dayjobs. But Heartbreaker rose above the angst and trauma of its circumstances to stand as an unequivocal triumph. Another prediction: Give it enough time, and Heartbreaker will someday outsell Gold.

4 — Demolition (2002). Most of  Ryan’s hardcore fans take their cue from Ryan’s disavowal of this odds-and-sods compilation and dismiss it (and Stereogum also ranked it his third-worst). Nevertheless, it’s my favorite of his major-label solo works; I’ve gotten a lot more enjoyment out of it than I have from Gold, I’ll tell you that — and “Dear Chicago” never fails to stun.

5 — Cold Roses (2005). It’s funny to recall the smack that young Ryan used to talk about the Grateful Dead back in the day, because this plays like a direct descendant of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead. Mellow and intermittently superb — but, yes, over-long. While super-fans are aghast at the notion of pruning its two-disc/18-song length, I still maintain that it could have been the basis of a single masterpiece album culled from the three he put out in 2005. I expect this kid would also disagree. But it’s all good.

6 — Pneumonia (2001). A grand pop experiment, and the high points are as great as anything Ryan has ever done with or without Whiskeytown. Ultimately, however, Pneumonia is a half-successful album that just doesn’t hang together, and some of it is downright half-assed (see: “Paper Moon”). Had the original 1999 version come out, that would rate a notch higher.

7 — Rural Free Delivery (1997). Released as equal parts contractual obligation and revenge by Mood Food Records (the independent label Whiskeytown left to go to the majors), RFD displays exactly as much care in its execution and packaging as you’d expect — as in, almost none. And yet the spark of these 1994 recordings can’t be denied, especially the four tracks comprising Whiskeytown’s 1995 debut EP. I also still love the countrypolitan take on Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown.”

8 — Love Is Hell (2003-2004). Where shit gets real, with an album that more than lives up to its title. Ryan was in a particularly dark place when he made this; and while it’s quite good, the obvious pain makes for a difficult listen. Love Is Hell remains an album I respect more than enjoy, but it certainly has its enthusiasts.

9 — Ashes & Fire (2011). I really wanted this to be spectacularly great, and for a time I think I fooled myself into believing it’s better than it really is (partly because it was such a vast improvement over its 2008 predecessor, the ultra-dreary Cardinology). With the benefit of hindsight, I’d call it a return toward form rather than all the way to form; a good record, but still not quite all the way there. Lovely as it is, I find it a touch too subdued. But “Lucky Now,” which strikes a perfect closing note in the movie “This Is 40,” is his best song in eons. There’s room to grow here, and hope springs eternal. I can’t wait to hear his next record, whenever it emerges.

10 — Rock N’ Roll (2003).  Though it was well-reviewed upon release, Rock N’ Roll has acquired a taint over the years. Most DRA purists would put it near rock-bottom (and Stereogum has it rated his second-worst; it also figures prominently here), but I think it’s better than that — Ryan’s new-wave tribute to Gold’s classic-rock homage, and the album he delivered when his label complained that Love Is Hell was too dour. I initially preferred RNR to LIH, but now I must admit that the latter has aged better.

11 — Easy Tiger (2007). To me, Easy Tiger feels like more of a compilation than Demolition, bouncing as it does between widely varying styles. But the high points, “Everybody Knows” and “Off Broadway,” stand among Ryan’s best songs. On the downside is “Halloweenhead” (ugh). And I still die a little whenever I hear “These Girls,” the abomination he rewrote “Hey There, Mrs. Lovely” into (go find the original version on the Destroyer bootleg instead). I must confess I kind of hold that against the rest of the record.

12 — Jacksonville City Nights (2005). I so wanted to love this. Still do, and JCN definitely has its defenders — Stereogum gives it a bronze medal while my fellow DRA obsessive Sharon insisted I give it another chance when I wrote dismissively of it. So I did; but alas, this album still just feels a little off to me. All the elements are in place, except for Ryan, who sounds like he wants to get back but can’t find the way. He sounds almost manic on “The End,” a song that still makes me cringe going on eight years later.

13 — Gold (2001). I once saw someone on Twitter call Gold “forced, like date night in a loveless marriage,” which I’d say hits the nail on the head. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had about this record over the years. It would make my life ever so much easier if I just liked the damned thing — and Lord knows, I’ve tried. But even though it’s his commercial high point, I still find Gold to be a self-indulgent mess with some great songs (especially “When The Stars Go Blue”) lost amid too much dreck (especially “Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues”), made all the more frustrating by all the great songs he’d passed over to do this. Oh well. You say Gold, I say Strangers, let’s call the whole thing off.

14 — III/IV (2010). Outtakes from the period that yielded up Easy Tiger, and it has some decent individual songs. But I’d say it’s still for completists only. Being one of those myself, I gave it a more favorable review than it probably deserved upon release.

15 — Cardinology (2008). An album I really have to struggle to get through, because it feels absolutely stillborn to me; just sort of generic, some pretty songs here and there — but none of it sticks, which was worrisome because it left me wondering if Ryan had lost it completely. The first time I heard Ashes & Fire, I was almost ill with relief because it was such a huge improvement over this.

16 — 29 (2005). Yeah yeah yeah, it’s a concept album about Ryan’s 20s, with one song for each year. So what? While 29 has its proponents, I’ve always found it uninviting enough to make Love Is Hell feel like Up With People. My first thought upon hearing it was: All the amazing stuff he’s got in the vaults, and he puts out this? The years haven’t softened that opinion, either.

ADDENDUM: There must be something in the air because a writer named Jeremy Winograd is also grading Ryan’s catalog. He seems to write about Ryan quite frequently (and he was also kind enough to review “Losering”). His response to this list:

Can’t say I agree with all of your list — I think you overrate the Whiskeytown stuff a bit, though I can’t say I blame you for that, and I would definitely put Jacksonville City Nights and Easy Tiger higher. But like I said in my 29 review, part of the fun of Ryan’s catalog is that nobody seems to completely agree which stuff is good and which stuff sucks! Wading through 900 mediocre songs to get to the 100 great ones is all part of the experience, I guess.

SECOND ADDENDUM (9/14/14): Here’s another DRA catalog ranking.

THIRD ADDENDUM (2/21/17): Still another DRA catalog ranking.

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“Poseur” traces Ryan’s track marks in New York (and New Orleans)

SpitzPoseurWhile “Losering” recounts a wild time or two from back in the day, on the whole I’d say it’s pretty tame — certainly a lot tamer than it could have been, because I was more interested in Ryan’s music than the dirt. But those seeking the dirt will find a good bit of it in “Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the ’90s” (Da Capo Press). Written by playwright/critic Marc Spitz, “Poseur” recounts the author’s posed-with-the-gods moments in the city alongside Ryan and other celebrities including Joe Strummer, Chloe Sevigny, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Collette and Julian Casablancas (go here to see capsule summaries of the namedrops, plus a map showing where much of this happened).

But the book’s most vivid descriptions of Ryan come from New Orleans, where Spitz went in 2003 to report on sessions for what eventually emerged as the album Love Is Hell. That was a dark, grim time for Ryan, and Spitz writes about the experience in fairly harrowing detail. A sample:

Only two years earlier, he’d been the boyish kid playing his acoustic guitar in front of the Twin Towers four days before they were hit. But he’d gotten strung out on heroin and cocaine and gone semi-mad after the release of his first two solo albums, Heartbreaker and Gold…[H]e’d East Villaged up, recorded a version of [The Strokes’] Is This It on a Casio-type keyboard, picked fights with more successful and still-mainstream artists like John Mayer, and run wild all over Manhattan by night. Like all of us, Ryan had Strokes envy, and now he was sharing their manager – and I guess some of their drug habits…He was barely in control of his considerable talent, pretty, and flirting with death as a way to figure out who he truly was, but not interested in the answer at the expense of the drama…he had a beautiful and true voice when he let himself go there, but he got caught up in imitating either his heroes or those more firmly and comfortably entrenched in the zeitgeist…

 Down in New Orleans, putting up track orders and then changing them, taking lunch orders and then changing them, poor Ryan was a dervish of rock-and-roll ADHD. The guy could not sit still and was unable to unload his head fast enough…He was a low-life, as desired, but his brain was so teeming, he never slept or felt at peace and kept not dying. He was a mess.

There’s plenty more where that came from, most of it unbearably sad and depressing — all the moreso because the depravity rings very true. Here’s the story Spitz wrote about it at the time. A couple of years later, the New York Times would announce a story about Ryan sobering up with the headline,  “Ryan Adams Didn’t Die.”

ADDENDUM (2/4/2017): “Poseur” author Marc Spitz has died at age 47.

SECOND ADDENDUM (5/15/2017): Wow, a claim that Ryan got a member of The Strokes hooked on heroine.

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Kansas City — there Whiskeytown went

Exactly 15 years ago today, Whiskeytown ceased to be a “band” in the way that word is usually meant. It happened at a show in Kansas City, three dates before the end of the initial run of touring for 1997’s Strangers Almanac album. Tensions were high even before the show, things got worse onstage and a blowup ensued. Ryan stormed off after reportedly telling the stunned crowd it had just witnessed Whiskeytown’s last-ever show.

That wasn’t entirely true, because there was still a Whiskeytown after the dust settled. But it was a group, not a band, and well on its way to becoming the Ryan Adams Project. Even though Ryan insisted that wasn’t what he wanted, it was the undeniable truth. Over the next two years, Whiskeytown’s lineup became a revolving door with a near-constant shuffle of utility players coming and going from one tour to the next.

Probably the most momentous result of that 1997 implosion was the banishment of one of Whiskeytown’s original cornerstones, Phil Wandscher, whose primary role had been as Ryan’s guitar foil. As recounted in this 2005 interview, Phil endured a tough stretch after getting the boot from Whiskeytown, moving to Seattle and going back to the world of wage-slave dayjobs. He also struck a tone of measured conciliation when asked about his old bandmate:

People always ask me what it was like being in a band with Ryan. By now, I don’t think I need to fill in any more of the details. He’s a talented guy, I wish him all the luck in the world, and I hope he’ll figure it all out as he gets a little older. It’s a humbling experience to leave a situation like that and have to go back to the real world, making salads in a restaurant. But I also think that keeps you real, and more people need those experiences. You’ll only be successful if you can be a down-to-earth person that people can relate to. I get more praise from people at shows now than I ever did in Whiskeytown because there was so much other [expletive] going on: ‘Man, it was so cool when you [expletive] that song up, and he smashed the guitar!’

By then, Phil was already well into bouncing back with his post-Whiskeytown band, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, which remains a going concern (here’s a review I did of the last JSatSH album, from 2011). Phil has also done some studio work with a few well-known peers, including Death Cab For Cutie and Nada Surf. The last time Phil and I spoke was when I interviewed him for “Losering”  in early 2011, and he had some interesting and occasionally harsh things to say. He also told a pretty hilarious story about what it was like to open for Ryan at Red Rocks in 2007.

But you’ll just have to read the book for that.

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Discouraging words

We all talk a good game and pretend not to care, but every writer (including me) is desperately insecure regarding negative feedback. It comes with the territory when you put stuff out there, and developing a thicker skin is a survival mechanism. I’ve been writing in public for long enough now that it doesn’t bother me much to get bashed over record and concert reviews. There are times when it’s so far over the top that it’s funny — like how worked-up some people got over a John Mayer review five years ago (Seriously, people? John Mayer?). And in 2010, a record review prompted a torrent of rage from people who felt I wasn’t nearly gushy enough. Alas, that review’s online comments seem to have vanished into the ether. But the one I remember best is something I had as my Facebook profile-page tagline for a while:

Who is this David Menconi f—-r?

Still, that’s the dayjob. When what you’ve put out there is a labor of love you’ve poured everything into, you can’t help but feel every jab — even the little ones. “Losering” is still early in the press cycle, and the only “official” review to turn up so far was a nice one in Publishers Weekly. And while it wasn’t a review, I also got a little shout-out from San Antonio magazine.

I was feeling pretty good about that, along with some of the feedback from people I know who have read the book. But humility is always just a mouse click away. Last night, I was seeking a link for one of my upcoming readings when I came across the following, which surfaced a few months ago on someone’s blog after the book’s excerpt went online:

Well, it sounds like this person might actually buy the book, so that’s good. Still, typos (?) and some not-very-stellar writing…That was, um, not-very-stellar to see, thank ya very much. My first bad review! Kinda. Yay? Still, as long as I’ve been slinging barbs, I can take it.

But do tell: Would it be catty of me to point out the grammatical mistake in this dude’s first sentence?

Meow!

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