Thursday, 15 March 2012

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire


Last year we got our first record of new material from Ryan Adams in nearly 3 years which, for some artists may not be that long of a gap but this is coming from the prolific singer/songwriter who once released 3 LPs in the same year. And two of them were really good too.

Adams was exhausted after his band the Cardinals broke up and he reported a worsening with his Ménière's Disease, a disorder in the inner ear that causes an extreme sensation of vertigo. Though it was not an entirely negative hiatus, he did marry his long time squeeze; actress Mandy Moore and wrote two books of poetry. During his absence Capitol also issued a collection of unreleased recordings III/IV and he self-released a heavy metal album under the pseudonym Orion.

Ryan Adams started out his career as the lead singer of popular 90s country band Whiskeytown and after its disbandment recorded several fantastic solo albums followed by some not-so-fantastic ones. After this damp period, Adams regrouped with his new band; the Cardinals. They released the three aforementioned records in 2005 and were met with great acclaim, going on to record my personal favorite Ryan Adams’ record Easy Tiger in 2007. They would release one more album and then break up.

So now Ryan Adams returns solo once again and recording a record that appears as striking as his early works, but with the maturity of nearly two decades of experience.

This is abundantly clear in the opening track of the record ‘Dirty Rain’, a song echoing of his earliest songs. I hear a lot of ‘Rescue Blues’ and ‘Damn Sam’ in this. Early CSN&Y influence here obviously and with a tone of something that was definitely lacking from Cardinology, his last album prior to this.

The second track, also the title track, ‘Ashes & Fire’ made me really happy the first time I heard it, cause it was the first time in a while that Adams sang with his earlier country croon. And what works best about this track is the combination of maintaining his earlier sound but with the lyricism he’s developed in the more recent years. “Her eyes were indigo, and the cats were all calico and the sailboats they all sailed by, and a river she cried.” Some of his best lyrics, without question, I always think of the way Robert Hunter phrased things on the Dead album American Beauty when I listen to Ryan Adams’ records.

‘Come Home’’ is a bit of a snoozer, a simplistic love tune, featuring bland backup vocals by Norah Jones and Mandy Moore. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect from a veteran like Adams.

One of Ryan Adams’ most ambitious albums, was actually never released in whole, but split up in two EPs known as Love is Hell and Love is Hell Pt. 2. These albums had rock tracks, but their finest moments were in their quiet acoustic songs which were among the best Adams has ever released. ‘Rocks’ is reflective of those tracks. It almost reminds me of White Album-era Beatles for some reason. Listen to the track and you’ll probably catch the reference I am making with that. Cool.

‘Do I Wait’ is a sad song, but I like it a lot regardless. I think fans of the earlier Ryan Adams song will be annoyed by songs like this one, and the one that follows it, the Britpop glazed ‘Chains of Love’, these songs really are more like his newer material, but as a fan of him I really eat these tracks up. I acknowledge though, that they do lack the genius of the early tracks on this album, and indeed his early discography.

‘Invisible Riverside’ is probably the best track on the album. It’s laced with a catchy electronic undertone that really sucks you in while Adams distracts you with his sweet lyrics and guitar. It reminds me a lot of the stuff Wilco is putting out lately, which is definitely the niche I think Ryan Adams is going for, so this is a good sign that I’m picking up on it.

When the album first came out last year, I had said that ‘Save Me’ was my favorite track from the record… In retrospect, I definitely do not stand by it. It’s one of his more generic tracks, really similar to half of the shit on 29.

Adversely, ‘Kindness’ is among the best of the album’s offerings, it is the most tender and personal song on the album. Though Adams stated that he didn’t really infer to his developing illness on this record, this song definitely brings the subject up a little bit, alongside his marriage with Moore…These personal touches definitely help to curve the song in its beauty. Also the Hammond organ playing, really only evident near the end of the track is so fucking reminiscent of my favorite Hammond organ playing from the 60s and I LOVE that he put in there.

‘Lucky Now’ is the radio-friendly single of the album and I actually am not that crazy about it. It’s just kind of bland and sounds like every other alternative-country single in the last decade. Maybe it’s not horrible, but just the fact that it’s coming from Ryan Adams, I expect more.

The final track on the album is ‘I Love You, But I Don’t Know What To Say’ which is not as self-explanatory as the title might lead you to believe. It’s a sweet little love song obviously pegged for his squeeze Mandy Moore and while not overly interesting; it’s a nice ending to what is definitely a decent come-back record.

Ashes & Fire was unjustifiably criticized by a press that has always had a harsh and misunderstood relationship with Ryan Adams for no seemingly explainable reason. It’s not his best, but it’s definitely good and it is good to see him back in the saddle making music for his fans. The phoenix metaphor of the album might be a bit much, but the outline is definitely solid.
~Johnny

6.9

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