While Whiskeytown were one of the most highly regarded acts on the alternative country scene, garnering effusive praise from the critical establishment and cultivating one of the largest cult followings for their genre of choice, they were as much known for the progressively escalating tension between their fellow members as they were for their music itself.
The catalyst for these tensions tended to be the infamous youth who helmed the group as lead songwriter, lead vocalist and guitarist, the ever volatile, alcohol abusing Ryan Adams who was a mere twenty years old at the time of the release of Whiskeytown's debut, Faithless Street.
Not yet the critical darling who would be touted as the savior of rock and roll, Ryan Adams was better known for his alcohol fueled antics which resulted in the band's revolving door system for members during the band's short five year lifespan. Adams would regularly break into violent clashes with his fellow members both on and of the stage, altercations that would often degenerate from verbal into outright pugilistic episodes.
Thus Adams became notorious for both his alcoholic excesses and his short fuse as much as he was renowned for his songwriting brilliance, critical flaws that made him not only incompatible with his fellow band members but often incompatible with his audience, as his intoxication led to erratic showings at the group's concerts.
Fortunately Adams' vices never manifest themselves over the course of Faithless Street, a solid alternative country album that showcases his considerable strengths even at such a tender age. An accomplished songwriter, vocalist and guitarist even from the beginning, Adams has a flair for the genre, which is something of a surprise given that he'd just left a punk rock group prior to shifting his creativity to the alternative country paradigm.
Thanks to the presence of myriad bonus tracks Faithless Street is mildly overlong, but its gratuitous length is more than justified given that some of the extra numbers rank amongst the best songs on the album, particularly the stellar material culled from the Baseball Park Sessions which accounts for five of the CD's strongest alternative country anthems.
Indeed, these bonus tracks dilute some of the album's most egregious faults, defects that could otherwise have sabotaged the LP. While Adams' songwriting tends to remain strong, there are certain tracks that simply come across as generic alternative country, albeit with a more intelligent edge.
Adams' lyrics are already rather sharp and literate, while his abilities in this department would continue to grow in time. Nonetheless, they're not yet enough to sustain a lackluster song, ergo when the music lapses into bland territory it can't be salvaged by even the most penetrating and erudite of lyrics let alone Adams' precocious yet still developing lyrical prowess.
Most of the tracks, however, are quite strong, ranging from minimalistic beauty to brooding hardluck reminiscences. Despite the generally mellow tone of the music some tracks even rock, like the classic opener Midway Park and the slight but energetic Revenge.
Thus while the album is marred by its erratic character, it tends to remain a high quality affair, and it's certainly an auspicious debut by any standards. It never rises above the level of 'good,' but it's still an entertaining and moving experience and a testament to the brilliance of Ryan Adams. His grasp of the style is truly impressive given his novice status in it, and thus he knows how to fashion the kind of warm, penetrative beauty that can only exist within the country genre.
Whiskeytown's increasing popularity amongst the alternative country crowd attracted the attention of profit hungry studio executives in search of the next big thing, leading to the band finally signing with a major record label. The product of this union is Strangers Almanac, an album that may smooth over some of the band's rough edges but still preserves the stark, emotive character of the group.
The clearest way to ascertain the disparities between the studio enhanced material on Strangers Almanac and the band's more minimalistic fare on Faithless Street is simply to compare the overlapping tracks; Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight, Yesterday's News and 16 Days had all appeared on the reissue of Whiskeytown's debut as unfinished bonus tracks, thus lacking the studio sheen that characterizes their sound on their subsequent endeavor.
Contrary to expectations, the tracks, while inherently strong to begin with, work better in a more polished context; one would assume that country tracks are preferable and more emotive when their arrangements are raw and barebones, yet these songs actually benefit from the studio approach, sounding richer and more fully realized. Their relative polish doesn't dilute or obstruct their penetrative resonance, thus hardly constituting an over-commercialization or a concession intended to pander to the uncultured masses.
This rule applies to the bulk of the album's material. While the minimalistic approach worked brilliantly on Faithless Street, the more polished approach suits the content of Strangers Almanac quite well, never compromising the band's signature sound or image.
In addition to the erstwhile bonus tracks there are myriad other highlights as well. Turn Around is an aggressive yet moving track with rock tendencies that fuel its energetic emotional onslaught, while Dancing With The Women At The Bar is a haunting, tenebrous vision with moody atmospherics and ominous vocals. Elsewhere Everything I Do is quintessential country music that the band nevertheless manages to put their own stamp on, handling its clichéd nature with enough precision and intelligence to make it a compelling, convincing ballad.
Once again the album isn't perfect; there are certainly some lesser songs, with only a modicum of diversity to stylistically differentiate the tracks from one another, but Adams' songwriting remains strong. The caliber of the material is very similar to that of Faithless Street, a phenomenon that's perfectly understandable when one realizes that Adams had written many of the songs for both albums before he'd ever even reached a recording studio.
The musicians are also quite capable, though the revolving door policy is already in effect, resulting in a dramatically altered group even a mere two years into the band's lifespan, while more changes are in store for the future.
Overall Strangers Almanac is a good album, much like its predecessor was. Adams has proven himself to be one of the most gifted songwriters in the realm of alternative country, and his eclectic blend of archetypal country honesty, emotional transparency and stark beauty, studio polish and the occasional infusion of rock and roll edge and energy results in quite the impressive package.
Thus Strangers Almanac is another artistic triumph for Adams and company, if a minor one. While their debut and sophomore effort have shown a lot of promise, the band has yet to craft a truly timeless product, producing striking yet somewhat limited work. This is natural given Ryan Adams' tender age, and the albums are still perfectly enjoyable, while the quality of the songs certainly bespeaks more innate potential than most other groups are blessed with.
Ryan Adams' abrasive personality ensured that few musicians would be able to tolerate his presence for any extended period of time, and thus by the time of Whiskeytown's third and final outing only two of the original band members remained, fiddler/backing vocalist Caitlin Cary and Adams himself.
New members appeared and disappeared with alarming regularity, leading to a group that seldom had anything approaching a stable lineup. By this point, however, most of the musicians had simply degenerated into mere conduits for Adams' artistic visions, diluting the impact that the constantly fluctuating band roster had upon the overall sound of the group's output.
Amazingly enough a new album emerged out of this nonstop vicious turmoil, though it was condemned to follow a tumultuous course befitting the chaotic nature of the band themselves.
Pneumonia was recorded in 1999, though the collapse of Whiskeytown's label resulted in the album getting shelved until 2001. During its time in the nebulous limbo between completion and release it managed to earn a reputation as one of the 'great lost albums' through a plethora of bootlegs and underground hype, so that by the time of its release Whiskeytown had already cultivated a healthy cult following for the long delayed CD.
Pneumonia's convoluted history may very well have inflated the magnitude of the praise the album garnered upon its reception, transfiguring the CD into a timeless classic in the eyes of a fanbase who had eagerly been awaiting its official release for the past few years.
While its quality may have been exaggerated thanks to these extenuating circumstances, Pneumonia is still quite a solid album, even offering some improvements upon its predecessors (though without really surpassing them in the long run). The album is decidedly more eclectic than the group's first two products, featuring everything from the lightweight pop of Mirror, Mirror to the exotic, tropically flavored Paper Moon to Crazy About You which is tantamount to a restrained brand of power ballad to the minimalistic What The Devil Wanted which is structured around a tape loop.
This diversity often makes Pneumonia a more intriguing, idiosyncratic listen than Whiskeytown's first two efforts which were still predominantly grounded in the alternative country genre, but the escalating variety has some negative repercussions of its own.
While tracks like Paper Moon and What The Devil Wanted may stand out from a stylistic perspective, they don't necessarily stand out from a qualitative one. By all means the band is to be commended for this attempt at diversity and expanding their sound, but they don't always have much of a facility for the genres they tackle, leading to interesting but underwhelming results.
Paper Moon simply comes across as bland, as if adhering to the blueprints of the genre is sufficient without really adding anything of worth to it, What The Devil Wanted is wholly unspectacular and doesn't even make very good use of the tape loop, and Mirror, Mirror betrays the group's identity to an unforgivable extent thanks to its idiotic sound and rudimentary melody. None of these songs are truly bad, but they don't bespeak much in the way of versatility on the band's part; as genre exercises they're perfectly acceptable, but they don't add much to the album as a whole.
Fortunately Pneumonia has more than enough highlights to compensate for the deleterious effects of their wayward stylistic experiments, songs that reaffirm one's faith in Ryan Adams' considerable aptitude as a songwriter.
Sit & Listen To The Rain, for example, is a stellar track, an enthralling, moody number with ample hooks and a haunting feel. Elsewhere My Hometown also makes good use of its atmospheric nature, while Don't Be Sad adroitly adds some pop hooks to a strong alternative country foundation.
Jacksonville Skyline is anthemic alternative country at its finest and The Ballad Of Carol Lynn is a good choice for the album opener just as Bar Lights ends the CD on precisely the right note.
Thus Pneumonia is another solid offering from Whiskeytown and a fitting swansong for their all too brief lifespan. It's clear throughout that Ryan Adams wants to break out of his old mold, hence the chameleon-like shifts from style to style, and the album benefits from his increasing ambitions.
The album certainly has flaws, with the band overestimating their aptitude for performing and composing for certain genres; they correctly imitate the styles' forms, but without really progressing beyond the realm of mere mimicry. Thus the band doesn't always make good songs in these styles, rather simply producing authentic recreations of certain varieties of music with no additional musical substance to speak of.
Nevertheless the bulk of the album is, as usual, quite strong, and even if some of the genres exercises are misfires they're still a good deal more interesting than standard, run of the mill filler. Adams' lofty aspirations are admirable even if they move him away from his strengths, though over the course of his solo career he would become far more deft at genre experimentation. For now Pneumonia's variety is an asset if a mixed blessing, and there are myriad strong numbers on the album, ergo the final product is another good album from Whiskeytown; once again true greatness eludes the band's grasp, but the consistency of Adams and company is worthy of much praise, as three solid albums in a row is no small feat for any group.
Just as Ryan Adams eventually lost interest in punk rock and bowed out of his teenage stomping grounds Patty Duke Syndrome, it seems that at the turn of the century he not only lost interest in the alternative country scene but also lost interest in being a member of a group as well.
Thus Adams finally permanently dissolved Whiskeytown, a group already posed at the brink of termination thanks to the total instability of its lineup, and launched his solo career; Whiskeytown had often been hailed as potential saviors of rock music, and now that that latent possibility never came to fruition Adams inherited the title himself, making his solo debut a hotly anticipated affair with nearly insurmountable expectations for it.
Despite that unfair level of pressure Adams swiftly delivered his first album since the dissolution of Whiskeytown, and despite having generated a level of critical hype that would be nearly impossible to live up to Heartbreaker was released to rave reviews from most music publications, evoking the kind of effusive praise reserved only for rock artists that reviewers are intent on proclaiming to be the future of the industry.
Fortunately, while not the seminal masterpiece that some have touted it as, Heartbreaker richly deserves much of its acclaim, surpassing the quality of Adams' already strong Whiskeytown output. While by the end of Whiskeytown's lifespan their albums tended to be tantamount to Ryan Adams solo work, the start of his solo career proper gave Adams a clean slate, enabling him to take his music in any direction he so desired.
This artistic freedom rejuvenated Adams after the frustration of the delayed release of Pneumonia and endless clashes with his fellow bandmates, and while the product of this new beginning may not be vastly different from what came before it's characterized by a certain freshness that had been lost on his final collaborative endeavors.
Heartbreaker features a certain sparse, minimalistic style that gives Adams' material a kind of intimacy that his Whiskeytown products sometimes lacked. His arrangements are spare and understated, while his work boasts the kind of resonance that can only be established by the most emotionally open and honest of artists. The songs are made all the richer by his perpetual emotional transparency, and while many generic, faceless singer-songwriters can make that claim Adams' work is informed by a certain intelligence and insight that's conspicuously absent from the output of many of his fellow artists' angsty confessions.
While there are two (quite entertaining) rockers, To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High) and Shakedown On 9th Street, the album most consists of highly compelling numbers that are something more akin to folk rock than his erstwhile alternative country fare.
Tracks like My Winding Wheel are simply beautiful, minimalistic opuses that are performed with an emotive, eloquent delicacy that doesn't diminish their catchiness. Elsewhere Bartering Lines cultivates an arresting subtle menace, while AMY is one of Adams' usual great relationship anthems.
The album is quite consistent, with every track (save the joke opener that's a brief debate over the tracklisting of Morrissey's Viva Hate and Bona Drag) having something to offer. The songs are nearly uniformly deeply emotional yet universally catchy and well written, and Adams is in top form not only as a songwriter but as a guitarist and vocalist as well.
Thus Heartbreaker is a great album and a huge artistic leap above Adams' prior Whiskeytown fare. Improving upon his past on both emotional and intellectual levels, Adams' solo debut is a creative triumph, cementing him as an artist at the forefront of his generation's music.
Ryan Adams was never one to be pigeonholed, adroitly evading classification through his incredible versatility and fondness for experimentation. No two of his albums, either solo or with Whiskeytown, ever sounded the same, as rather than embrace specialization like most rock artists he always sought to explore a wide range of styles, dispelling any potential for stagnation or conservative complacency.
Thus Gold, Adams' sophomore effort as a solo artist, bears little in the way of resemblance to his debut Heartbreaker. Rather, on this outing Adams elects to pay homage to many of his influences, skillfully emulating their styles; while Adams had launched a similar undertaking of Whiskeytown's swansong Pneumonia, on that occasion he had faltered, focusing solely on authentically duplicating the sounds of his influences without penning terribly compelling melodies, thus producing mere hollow shells of the bands that had inspired him.
Fortunately by the time of Gold Adams had progressed considerably as a songwriter, crafting brilliant melodies for nearly every track on the album. Thus he not only establishes a sound that's reminiscent of his forbearers but likewise composes music of the kind that his influences performed, all while making sure that these melodies, while adhering to the styles of his influences, are still purely his own, never drifting dangerously close to plagiaristic territory.
The bulk of Adams' musical tributes are concentrated in the seventies, with notable influences including his most high profile fan Elton John, but some of the bands and artists that inspired him date back to the sixties, like Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones.
Adams' songwriting is simply impeccable throughout; highlights abound, like the elegant catharsis of the unspeakably beautiful When The Stars Go Blue, one of his best tracks ever, the epic Nobody Girl with its infectious refrain and the catchy rocker Gonna Make You Love Me. There's nothing even approaching filler, as nearly every track features exceptional vocal melodies and compelling instrumentation. Gold represents Adams' zenith as a songwriter, effortlessly negotiating the perilous balance between homage and outright theft.
This musical brilliance comes at a price, however. Thanks to Adams' masquerades Gold fails to connect to the listener on an emotional level the way that its predecessor had; even its most moving moments, like When The Stars Go Blue, are beautiful because of the caliber of the music and vocals as opposed to an intimate connection with the singer himself. Adams' emotional identity has been displaced from the album, as he dons a different mask for nearly every track.
This is hardly an insurmountable obstacle toward enjoying the album, however. As adept as Adams is at moving introspection it's not as if every CD that he produces has to be in a confessional mode, and he's more than skilled enough to make a record compelling even without establishing an emotional rapport with his listener.
Despite the album's inherently nostalgic nature it feels extremely fresh, as Adams never fails to select a timeless piece of art for his inspiration, giving them further relevance through his stellar songwriting and performances. He makes each song sound modern without tampering with their essence or imposing an up to date arrangement upon them, and the result is a faithful yet current delineation of some of the best music of the classic rock era.
Thus Gold is a brilliant album and Adams' best product to date. His songwriting is simply superb, his lyrics are strong and his singing has never been better as his forays into the realm of classic rock act as a perfect showcase for his vocal range. While lacking the immediate emotional impact of Heartbreaker, focusing more on craftsmanship than on personal connections with the artist himself, the caliber of the songs fully justifies this sacrifice, as there are many more sides to Ryan Adams than any single album would suggest.
According to most accounts of Demolition's origins, in the course of a single year Adams had produced enough material to sustain four full length albums (rendering him prolific even by Robert Pollard's standards); rather than actually releasing multiple albums or creating a multi-disc behemoth Adams and the record company perceived the wisdom in moderation, and thus the erstwhile Whiskeytown frontman handpicked thirteen tracks from his latest recording sessions and offered the final product to his audience as his third solo outing.
This was certainly the most intelligent course of action, as any alternative would be dismissed as self-indulgent and bloated, so if nothing else Adams is to be commended for his sagacity and clarity of thinking on the matter, deftly evading a potential critical and commercial backlash.
Unfortunately, either the caliber of the sessions was lower than usual or Adams lacks discernment when it comes to his own work, because Demolition, while far from bad, is easily his weakest effort to this point, an erratic affair that blends some of his best material with some of his absolute worst.
By virtue of the nature of its genesis Demolition isn't a very thematically cohesive album, feeling somewhat haphazardly assembled as if it had been thrown together at the last conceivable moment, but that's the least of its liabilities. Demolition simply contains an unhealthy preponderance of filler, sporting more misfires over the course of its runtime than the entire rest of his catalogue had featured. This makes for an overall mediocre listening experience, something that can't be said about any of Adams' previous output.
Given Adams' level of talent there's certainly a fair share of topnotch content. Nuclear is an ideal opener, a superb and highly melodic apocalyptic anthem, Cry On Demand is an absolutely gorgeous ballad and Starting To Hurt is an incredibly catchy rocker.
Unfortunately, for every top tier ballad like Starting To Hurt there's a drab, nondescript one like She Wants To Play Hearts, a track that wallows in blandness for its entire duration.
The worst culprit, however, is the closer Jesus (Don't Touch My Baby), which also happens to be the album's longest number, thus exacerbating an already mind-numbing experience. As is evident on more than a few occasions over the course of the album, Adams seems to often operate under the misconception that any track that's slow and minimalistic and deals with emotional subject matter is automatically moving, or even slightly emotionally compelling. Jesus (Don't Touch My Baby) is criminally bland, a trite, tedious effort that fails to register on an emotional level at all. It's startling that a man who can pen ballads of the caliber of When The Stars Go Blue can produce banalities such as this, and this phenomenon goes a long way toward sabotaging the album as a whole.
There's still more than enough quality material to at least partially salvage the album, with little that's outright offensive to jeopardize the overall success of Demolition. Even some songs that are, at first, somewhat grating, like the country flavored up tempo number Chin Up, Cheer Up, ultimately constitutes something of a guilty pleasure, with enough craftsmanship devoted to it to ensure a halfway decent experience.
Thus the album is, ultimately, mediocre, but not without its own unique charm. The album may be a jumble thanks to its unconventional origin, but this very fact makes it intriguing in is own right, and something of an unpredictable listen. There are also some truly stellar songs, like Nuclear, Cry On Demand and Starting To Hurt, and there's also only a modicum of genuinely poor material.
Ergo Demolition may be Ryan Adams' weakest offering, but it's still a moderately entertaining experience; it seldom connects with one on an emotional level the way Heartbreaker and peak Whiskeytown numbers can, and for the most part it lacks the songwriting brilliance of Gold, but it's still a (perhaps inadvertently) diverse and largely compelling listen, and any Ryan Adams fan will find at least something to like about it.
The intended follow up to Demolition was Adams' take on alternative rock, the dark, moody Love Is Hell; the record company, however, balked at the idea, protesting that the album failed to betray enough progression from his prior work (a notion that's simply mystifying, given that no two Ryan Adams albums ever sounded the same to begin with, and Love Is Hell sounds like nothing else in his canon).
Thus the record label demanded a brand new album within a short space of time, with their sole concession being that they'd subsequently release Love Is Hell (albeit bifurcated into two EPs with different release dates, though at least they eventually released it as a single CD). Ergo Adams was forced to hastily slap together a new album to meet his deadline, and an album that would appease his narrow-minded employers at that.
Frustrated with the benighted mindset of the studio executives, Adams elected to compose a product that would ridicule everything thing that his superiors desired from him, and the result is Rock N Roll, his parody/indictment of the current rock and roll climate.
The album has myriad targets for its derisive satire, but the emphasis is on the garage rock scene that was, at the time, having a monumental resurgence led by the likes of The Strokes and The White Stripes. Thus Adams penned scathing mimicries of such rock outfits, while also taking a jab at bands like The Smiths (on the catchy Anybody Wanna Take Me Home) and Interpol (on the terrific Luminol) in passing.
To complement his musical emulation of acts like the Strokes, Adams even went so far as to pen intentionally idiotic lyrics for many of the tracks, with lines like, 'the city is an animal/ready to eat,' on 1974 and 'it's totally fucked up/I'm totally fucked up/wish you were here,' on Wish You Were Here.
Beyond the obvious references to the Strokes' brand of millennial garage rock there are countless other nods to various other rock outfits, sometimes only in terms of titles (like Pink Floyd in Wish You Were Here, Led Zeppelin in Rock N Roll and Joy Division in She's Lost Total Control) and sometimes in seemingly throwaway lyrics (the line, 'this is really happening,' in This Is It (which itself is a take on the Strokes' debut Is This It) is paying homage to Radiohead's Idioteque).
What really makes the album work, however, is the caliber of Adams' songwriting. While most of the tracks on the CD can be taken as parodies, even when one discounts that aspect of them they're left with songs that are just as catchy and entertaining as the very numbers they're spoofs of. Tracks like the stellar riff rocker 1974, the heavy, lumbering metallic anthem that is Note To Self: Don't Die and the catchy, fluid Luminol are comparable with the best material from the very groups that Adams is skewering, filled with irresistible hooks and memorable melodies.
Thus the album works as both a parody of recent garage rock bands and a genuine garage rock record itself, and this is precisely why it works; were it merely a spoof bereft of tight songwriting the album would be nothing but a faintly amusing novelty, devoid of any real musical substance. As it stands, the album can be appreciated on myriad levels, so that even once the initial humorous charm wears off Rock N Roll is still well worth listening to.
It's clear throughout that Adams has a great understanding of the fundamental dynamics of the retro garage rock craze, which is what enables him to both adroitly poke fun at it and duplicate it on a more serious level as well. This is hardly a surprise, as the fad had already bred a measure of animosity between Adams and the groups at the forefront of the movement; Adams had had a bitter, somewhat childish war of words with Jack White, while in the case of the Strokes he'd actually recorded (though never released, unfortunately) an album comprised of blues renditions of the tracks from the band's debut. Adams was obviously very conscious and affected by the trend, and Rock N Roll is certainly an intriguing response to the garage rock phenomenon.
It's not as if Adams excoriates every group he alludes to; the Smiths inspired song, Anybody Wanna Take Me Home, feels more like a fond tribute than a postmodern evisceration, while there's nothing terribly derogatory about Interpol in the number Luminol. It never even feels as if Adams is fully condemning the likes of the Strokes; he certainly mocks their lyrics and the primitivism that informs their style, but nevertheless it feels, on some level, as if there's a certain affection toward the group, albeit a somewhat condescending one.
By virtue of its single-minded aim Rock N Roll isn't on the same level as Gold or Heartbreaker, but it was never really meant to be; it accomplishes what it set out to do with intelligence and precision, and is actually shockingly good for what it is. It is, however, lacking in depth, emotional power and insight, which prevents it from reaching the heights of his peak output. Nevertheless the album is simply fun, a work that's hilarious and exceedingly catchy at the same time. Adams' dissection of the garage rock scene is clever and well thought out, while his deft songwriting ensures that the songs work not only as whimsical attacks on the genre but as catchy, entertaining songs in their own right.
Thus Rock N Roll is a very strong album, a tribute to Adams' versatility and chameleon-like nature. It may not offer what one's looking for in a Ryan Adams album, but then again if it did it would be an unworthy work that lacks 'progression.'
While not one for concept albums in the conventional sense, Ryan Adams seemed fond of selecting a unifying theme for each of his solo releases; thus Heartbreaker was a melding of his Whiskeytown era alternative country and folk rock, Gold was an homage to the rock scene of the seventies, Rock N Roll was a compendium of current garage rock clichés and Love Is Hell is Adams' attempt at an alternative rock album, influenced by a plethora of contemporary acts from the mope-rock of The Smiths (an inspiration that was reinforced by recruiting the erstwhile Smiths producer John Porter) to the tenebrous visions of Radiohead.
Unfortunately for Adams his record label wasn't exactly enthused by the prospect of a Ryan Adams alternative rock album, opting to indefinitely shelve it until he provided them with a more commercially viable affair. Thus it wasn't until the release of Rock N Roll that the record company released Love Is Hell, and even then they split it into two EPs, a maneuver that exhibited just how little faith they had in the mainstream success of the album.
Luckily eventually Love Is Hell was released on a single disc, earning its place alongside CDs like Heartbreaker and Gold as a full fledged official Ryan Adams album, and after only a single listen one will doubtless be mystified by the record label's reluctance to issue the album.
There are myriad rumors about the label's motives in this regard. Ryan Adams, either to hype the CD's eventual release or sugarcoat the company's initial outright rejection of the album, espoused the notion that Love Is Hell was too 'dark' and 'depressing' for the studio executives' conception of what could constitute a lucrative venture, the studio declared that Adams could 'do better' and that this was merely quality control, while others attributed the situation to the fact that Love Is Hell hardly gels with Lost Highway's (the name of Adams' record company) musical vision, as they're a label that specializes in Americana.
Regardless of the reasoning that informed this decision, however, the prolonged period in which Love Is Hell was consigned to record limbo was an absolute travesty against good taste and discernment, as the album was not only strong but one of Adams' very best works.
The album is indeed as dark and depressing as Adams had alluded to, a bleak, predominantly minimalistic vision that marries Adams knack for adroit mimicry with the emotionally transparent, deeply moving essence of Heartbreaker and most Whiskeytown output. This is one occasion where neither department was compromised for the sake of the other the way Adams' gifted emulations had diluted Gold's emotional impact and the fashion in which the emotional honesty of Heartbreaker took the focus away from stylistic experimentation and hook filled songwriting.
The songwriting in Love Is Hell is immensely impressive, acknowledging its influences while always making sure that the catchy melodies are purely Ryan Adams' own creations. The album is profoundly atmospheric but this never comes at the expense of the CD's hooks, and the product's innate moodiness is never employed to mask any melodic deficiencies.
Love Is Hell is captivating from the very first moments of the album, as it starts with the spare, deeply caliginous and moody Political Scientist, a number that deftly fuses emotional potency, pervasive darkness and haunting minimalism. Despite its relentlessly dour nature the song is still catchy and well constructed, achieving a unique brand of grim catharsis that's rarely found in rock music.
Political Scientist is hardly the only highlight, however. This House Is Not For Sale may spark associations with groups like REM, but even as it evokes thoughts of that particular alternative rock milieu it remains a highly original song, featuring terrific, forceful vocals in sharp contrast to the wavering fragility of the singing on Political Scientist.
Elsewhere the title track is a stellar number that manages to be anthemic and up tempo despite its cynical lyrical message, while Adams' cover of the seminal Oasis hit Wonderwall receives a somber acoustic treatment that transfigures the legendary song into a rich, darkly beautiful, catharsis inducing mix of catchiness and emotional vulnerability.
World War 24 is another great cut, eloquently preserving the melancholia that permeates the whole album, Thank You Louise is a gorgeous ballad and I See Monsters is catchy yet imbued with a subtle note of menace.
Ultimately Love Is Hell is a brilliant outing for Ryan Adams; the alternative genre suits him quite well, and he's always had a flair for emotive darkness and moving depression. Adams' songwriting is topnotch throughout, marrying enthralling atmospherics with excellent songwriting. One must be grateful that Lost Highway didn't continue to withhold this gem from Ryan Adams fans, as it instantly assumes a place of the utmost distinction in his storied discography.
After taking a year long hiatus, something previously thought inconceivable for the customarily prolific rock star, Ryan Adams elected to compensate for his prolonged inaction by releasing three new albums in one year, with the first of the triumvirate being a full fledged double CD no less.
Having amply demonstrated the extent of his versatility on his most recent endeavors, Adams opted to return to his roots, recording an alternative country album in the vein of his old Whiskeytown output. Many long time fans were elated by this maneuver, while Adams' new audience was finally given the chance to experience the erstwhile Whiskeytown frontman in the mode that had garnered him so much effusive praise over the years and effectively launched his career.
While hearkening back to his past was a dangerous gambit, potentially eliciting accusations of regression, stagnation or cheap nostalgia, there was really nothing to worry about in the long run, as Adams' innate gift for this style swiftly dispels any doubts about this seemingly dubious career move.
Adams has honed his alternative country craft over the years, while his myriad departures from the genre augmented his facility for songwriting in any style, not merely those he was employing at the moment. Thus his artistic maturation extends to his alternative country acumen, ergo his years of neglect for that genre have, rather then causing his aptitude for the style to atrophy, continued to ameliorate his abilities in that department as well.
Cold Roses not only returns to the Whiskeytown style but actually improves upon it, as Adams has progressed tremendously in the intervening time between the dissolution of the group and the success of his solo career.
Beyond the stylistic overlap between Whiskeytown and the material on Cold Roses, there's another major correlation between the two musical ventures as well; Cold Roses, for the first time since Whiskeytown, depicts Adams as a member of a genuine rock outfit, with skilled bandmembers backing him on each track and even, to some degree, collaborating with him on the creative end of things.
This collective effort gives Cold Roses a richer, fuller sound than Adams was ever able to achieve on his solo outings, rendering his newfound partners an integral asset to the album as a whole.
Most important of all, however, is the dramatic qualitative escalation of Adams' songwriting prowess, which ensures that each of the eighteen tracks on the double album features an abundant supply of catchy, inventive hooks, which is more than can be said for his traditionally solid yet sometimes erratic Whiskeytown output.
From the terrific opener Magnolia Mountain to the moving When Will You Come Back Home to the rougher Beautiful Sorta to the irresistible Sweet Illusions to the profanity-laden yet beautiful Cherry Lane to the catchy Easy Plateau, the album is filled with alternative country classics, rendering Cold Roses an effective showcase for Adams' development as a songwriter over the years. Forays into alternative rock, homages to his seventies influences and postmodern flirtations with garage rock haven't diluted Adams' proficiency as an alternative country artist, as he returns to his roots without having missed a step.
Adams' brand of alternative country is as catchy, compelling and emotional as ever, cultivating an intimate bond with the listener that's never compromised by self-indulgent digressions or overly commercial single-friendly numbers the way a plethora of his contemporaries tend to operate within the confines of the genre. Adams' work is deep yet accessible, ensuring an extremely rewarding listen.
Cold Roses and Heartbreaker represent the closest Adams has come to recapturing the spirit of Whiskeytown, and whereas Heartbreaker had already done much to differentiate itself from Adam's prior works Cold Roses is his first blatant attempt to resurrect the ethos that had informed his old band.
Thus Cold Roses is a very accomplished affair, a throwback that's never marred by futile attempts to relive the past or pathetically pining for past triumphs. Adams never really needed to resurrect the feel of Whiskeytown, as he had proven that he could do quite well for himself without using his old group as a crutch. Nevertheless this restoration of Whiskeytown values makes for a highly compelling listen, a career decision that may not prove necessary but is still very enjoyable in its own right. Adams' return to his past, rather than inspiring predictability, complacency or shameless resting on his laurels, has if anything reinvigorated him, as throughout the album he seems to be quite happy to be back home in his natural element.
Ryan Adams seldom shied away from taking artistic and commercial risks; his plan to reinvigorate his career (after CDs like Love Is Hell failed to cement him as the savior of rock and roll that he envisioned himself as) by releasing three album in a single years was a daring and impressive gambit, and his commitment to making all of his outings stylistically radically different from one another is certainly something to be commended for.
Nevertheless when one takes so many risks the occasional misfire is inevitable, and the sub par quality of Jacksonville City Nights is certainly a testament to that fact. Like most of Adams' recent ventures the album is devoted to a solitary style, with the dominant form in this case being a brand of straightforward country that's almost defiantly removed from Adams' customary alternative country aesthetics, marking his first attempt at tackling this simplified version of his signature style.
Unfortunately this genre doesn't prove to be especially conducive toward accentuating Adams' strengths; whereas albums like Rock N Roll succeeded because they depicted him embracing styles antithetical to his own, resulting in a truly unique product, the brand of country showcased on Jacksonville City Nights simply comes across as a less deep, less complex variation on the style employed on Cold Roses. Thus it doesn't hold the appeal of Adams trying something vastly removed from his comfort zone, while on a songwriting level it's demonstrably inferior to his prior work due to its feel as a dumbed down version of its predecessor.
The songwriting on Jacksonville City Nights pales in comparison to Adams' craftsmanship on Cold Roses, lacking the creative hooks and memorable melodies that typified his previous endeavor. Adams, while a consummately versatile performer, was truly in his element on Cold Roses, ergo when he tackles the far more basic, remedial standard country style he loses much of the intelligence and passion that informed that brilliant opus.
This isn't to say that Jacksonville City Nights is bad; it's a relatively entertaining, if at times generic, work, and certainly features a handful of superior tracks. Thus songs like Trains are catchy if insubstantial, while Pa and Don't Fail Me Now are quite moving. Unfortunately the album isn't imbued with the emotional frankness and honesty that permeated his alternative country work, as if part of this simple country masquerade entailed sacrificing his true voice as an artist.
No tracks are actively bad; Adams' duet with Norah Jones on Dear John can be trying, numbers like A Kiss Before I Go are standard, nondescript country and September's attempts at moody atmospherics simply come across as bland, but none of them are offensive, merely too banal and mundane for an artist of the caliber of Ryan Adams.
Thus Jacksonville City Nights is ultimately a rather lackluster piece of work, lacking both the novelty of Adams exhibiting his immeasurable range by experimenting with a radically new genre and the brilliant songwriting that one had come to expect from a Ryan Adams album. Perhaps three albums in a single year simply served to spread himself thin, demanding too much from Adams no matter how prolific he had always appeared to be.
As far as the album's final verdict goes, Jacksonville City Nights can certainly be enjoyable thanks to the infectious country vibe that's sustained for the duration of the CD, but few songs stand up to further inspection. Very little is apt to be retained even after repeated listens, and the quality of the songwriting is the weakest it's been since the mediocre Demolition. Adams has simply trained his audience to expect more than authentic-sounding renditions of rudimentary country music, and the shift from stellar alternative country to a more basic kind of country fare is quite frankly a jarring move with no adequate transition to brace the listener for the shock.
It's difficult to ascertain precisely why Ryan Adams needed to oversaturate the music market with three new albums in a single calendar year; it may be a buzz generating stunt, it may be a cynical marketing ploy and it may be an attempt to establish himself as one of the major creative forces in the world of rock and roll, but it certainly doesn't seem to be the result of an overabundance of artistic inspiration in the guise of a muse compelling him to produce album after album of brilliant original material that simply had to see the light of day (unlike some of the oft alluded to ill-fated albums that continue to fill Adams's shelves with no release in sight).
This dearth of inspiration was never so apparent as on 29; Jacksonville City Nights was flawed, with a paucity of hooks and an overly derivative character, but at least most of the songs were fundamentally well written, composed and structured according to the basic tenets of rock and roll. On 29, however, myriad songs seem almost wholly bereft of any structure at all, with no guiding intelligence informing them or coherent blueprints to adhere to.
The album is intended to be another minimalistic enterprise, somewhat in the vein of the spare classic Love Is Hell, but this time around the minimalism is implemented in a far less inspired fashion. For a Ryan Adams song to work it has to reach the listener on both a musical and lyrical level, but on 29 he seems to deem it sufficient to strum a few minimalistic chords, add some would-be deep lyrics and promote the song as an instant passage to catharsis.
Most of the songs are simply egregiously underwritten, bland and overlong numbers with no musical skeleton to support them. There are exceptions; Twenty Nine (why the track title is written out as opposed to the album title is anybody's guess) achieves minimalism in the proper fashion, with arrangements that may be sparse yet still contain more than enough musical ideas to sustain an entire song. Unfortunately, Twenty Nine proves to be the exception to the rule; Carolina Rain is another decent track, albeit somewhat on the generic and forgettable side, while The Sadness has an exotic flavor but little else to say in its defense.
Adams had utilized minimalism to good effect in the past, but on this outing he handles it as more of a mask to conceal his negligence in the songwriting department. He simply seems depleted on 29, with little in the way of musical ideas; his lyrics are often strong, but he even sometimes goes awry in this department, as signified by the inanity and infelicitous phraseology on The Sadness, presumably to compensate for the fact that that track has the temerity to attempt to feature actual music (but, as stated before, the music on that song is hardly top tier Ryan Adams fare, notable more for its ethnic flavor than any meaningful hooks).
The album is simply supremely drab, with track after track of desultory, overextended minimalistic anthems that wash over the listener without even leaving much of an impression. Without song structure the entire pacing of the album is thrown off, transfiguring the tracks into grotesque, interchangeable masses of blandness and tedium.
29 conclusively proves that Adams' three-albums-in-a-year gambit was an absolute failure; Cold Roses was superb and Jacksonville City Nights was decent enough, but it's clear that by no means did Adams possess enough musical ideas to animate three whole albums. Each successive CD contained less musical merit than what came before it, culminating in the absolute nadir of Adams' career.
It's a pity that a career as promising as that of Ryan Adams' had to be tarnished by such a colossal misfire, but his own hubris is clearly at fault in the matter, as he, quite simply, bit off more than he could chew. One has to wonder if any of his infamous shelved projects are superior to 29; if so one certainly should have been issued in its place, and if not it's clear that they should continue to remain shelved far into the foreseeable future.
When one observes the twists and turns of Ryan Adams' diverse, arguably disjointed (and admittedly relatively short) career, certain patterns begin to emerge, clarifying the logic behind some of the seemingly arbitrary metamorphoses that characterize his idiosyncratic discography.
One notable phenomenon that has manifested itself in Adams' storied catalogue on more than a few occasions is his reflexive tendency to return to his comfort zone whenever he's confronted with severe adversity, be it commercial or critical. Over the years it's been established that alternative country is the realm in which he feels safest, having achieved a mastery over the form even before his solo career's commencement. It assumed a role as a kind of default to revert to whenever his career hit a stumbling block, enabling him to effortlessly release a quality offering while reinvigorating himself for his next foray into alien territory.
Unfortunately for Adams, while he envisioned the genre of alternative country as a medium in which his work would always remain beyond reproach, this was far from the case, and this misplaced confidence caused him to grow complacent and lethargic. While there was a time in which an alternative country album from Adams was virtually guaranteed to be a strong product, time had weathered his gift for such songwriting, demanding a greater effort from him than the perfunctory treatment that Easy Tiger received from the erstwhile Whiskeytown frontman.
It's not as if Adams has lost his flair for the genre, it simply no longer comes as naturally to him; whereas he could once effortlessly generate first rate alternative country material, now he must make a concerted effort if he's to achieve something worthwhile in the genre.
As far as his previous solo endeavors that conformed to the alt country genre are concerned, Heartbreaker was designed to prove that Adams could produce content on par with and superior to that of his former band, proving his absolute command of the style. With this deed accomplished he was able to head in new directions, but after losing many a fan due to his chameleon-like genre exercises he swiftly released Cold Roses to appease those alienated by the likes of the tenebrous alt rock of Love Is Hell or the garage rock parodies on Rock N Roll.
Therefore it's unsurprising that after Adams' oversaturation of the record market in 2006, particularly after the debacle that was 29, he'd feel compelled to seek artistic redemption via his alternative country sanctuary. But whereas Heartbreaker was composed at a time when Adams was still at his peak as an alternative country performer and Cold Roses was a triumphant return to his previous form of choice, a genre he was still deeply connected to, Easy Tiger seemingly indicates that whatever passion Adams had for alternative country has long since evaporated.
Easy Tiger lacks the emotion, craftsmanship and songwriting acumen that elevated his prior work above the level of generic alternative country; the brutal honesty that typified his former projects is conspicuously absent, while the caliber of the melodies leaves much to be desired.
It's apparent that Adams conceived that imitating his old style was sufficient to create a product on par with his previous offerings in the genre, thus neglecting the aspects that truly animated his finest compositions. While it might sate rabid fans who have been craving the return of the Ryan Adams of old, those with discernment will find that Easy Tiger is a far cry from his best works in that style, something akin to going through the motions.
Despite these rather derogatory remarks the album is still far from bad. Easy Tiger is a pleasant, charming and welcoming listen; it may lack musical and artistic depth, but even if the content is missing Adams still ably capture the form. The album sounds like a Ryan Adams alternative country experience, and on a superficial level is indistinguishable from his better entries in the genre.
Additionally, there's still a modicum of worth present in many of the songs, with the occasional catchy vocal melody or genuinely moving instrumental passage. Adams' songwriting gifts, while not in full force, certainly haven't atrophied, guaranteeing sporadic moments of his signature brilliance.
Unfortunately most of the tracks, while appealing on the surface level, can still accurately be described as filler, hence songs like Tears Of Gold, a number that, much like the similarly titled Neil Young hit Heart Of Gold, is country at its most bland and generic, bereft of the guiding intelligence and craftsmanship endemic of both of their better works.
Another crippling liability is the album's profound lack of diversity. While there're occasional attempts at injecting at least some measure of variety into the mix, they're few and far between, and invariably amount to little of value. This becomes evident thanks to tracks like the incongruous rocker Halloweenhead, an energetic mass of distortion and infelicitous verse which fails to register as anything more meaningful than a mere hollow adrenaline rush.
Nevertheless, while lacking in many crucial areas Easy Tiger still makes for a somewhat entertaining, if largely empty, musical experience. While Adams has indeed proven that he can flawlessly reproduce the sound of his prior alternative country releases as opposed to the actual substance, the form alone has charms of its own, and can merit a listen in and of itself. It may not prove that rewarding in the long run, but there's no shame in enjoying the album on a purely superficial level.
After the utterly abysmal 29, Ryan Adams attempted to restore his image by returning to his roots, namely alternative country. The product of this alt rock homecoming, Easy Tiger, wasn't exactly successful in this regard; while not a blemish on his career the way 29 was, it still wasn't amongst the more accomplished of his alternative country endeavors, failing to capture the depth and passion of his prior work in the genre. However, where Easy Tiger failed its EP follow-up, Follow The Lights, succeeds, and in a far more compact, hard hitting form at that.
Admittedly Follow The Lights may seem like a hastily stitched together patchwork, as it's comprised of songs in different stages of their development without a real unifying theme to tie it all together; tracks range from covers to live cuts to remakes to actual new songs, bereft of a singular vision to make the EP more than the sum of its parts.
This shouldn't represent an impediment to the listener, however, as the overall quality of the material more than compensates for a lack of a central theme or purpose. The opening three numbers, the title track, My Love For You Is Real and Blue Hotel are all topnotch alternative country anthems, far superior to much of what can be found on Easy Tiger. The Cardinals are, as always, a huge asset, as the performances are highly professional while still being fluid and expressive. Adams' deftly and emotively handles the vocals with depth and precision and, most importantly of all, he's in fine form as a songwriter, penning moving and compelling lyrics and melodies.
In one of the stranger moves in his career Adams covers Alice In Chains; once one overcomes their initial shock and bewilderment, however, they'll discover a truly impressive performance that, rather than feel like a joke or a publicity stunt, actually fits both Adams and the EP perfectly.
The Alice In Chains song in question is Down In A Hole, one of the highlights of their magnum opus Dirt. Adams captures the moodiness and desperation of the song perfectly with his aching vocals, while The Cardinals turn in one of their best performances to date. Much like on his cover of Oasis' Wonderwall Adams has once again transformed the arrangement and structure of a song while still preserving its fundamental essence, a testament to his acute understanding of his craft.
Oddly enough Rock N' Roll's This Is It is resurfaces on Follow The Lights, this time with The Cardinals providing the song's arrangement. While one might assume that Adams' compositions from that postmodern dissection of contemporary rock would be incompatible with the style of The Cardinals, this rendition proves them wrong, as the track sounds better than ever in this new interpretation.
The final two tracks are live reworkings of Adams' material, namely If I Am A Stranger and Dear John. Both songs make the transition to a live forum quite well, if anything benefiting from their new musical context.
Thus Follow The Lights is quite a strong listen; needless to say it's short, an inherent byproduct of its EP status, and there are periodic stretches that aren't quite as riveting as one would like, but nevertheless it's well worth owning for Ryan Adams fans, and ultimately proves to be a more rewarding listen than the album proper that precedes it.
As has been remarked by myriad critics and fans alike, Cardinology is essentially the first Ryan Adams album to largely adhere to the same basic style as its immediate predecessor. To simply make this assertion alone without further clarification, however, is apt to breed misplaced inferences and rampant misunderstandings, as the statement harbors certain innate connotations and misleading implications that resoundingly don't apply to Adams' latest outing.
The fact that Cardinology retains the alternative country aesthetics of Easy Tiger doesn't signify that there are no disparities between the two outings; just because Adams doesn't perpetrate one of his customary sudden stylistic paradigm shifts doesn't mean that there are no changes of an altogether different nature, as there's far more to Ryan Adams' oeuvre than the mere genre that his works inhabit.
One of the more dramatic changes can be best delineated by exploring Adams' lyrics and tone on this go-round. On Cardinology Adams adopts a surprisingly straightforward and defiantly sentimental approach, eschewing his usual self-aware edginess, sly aloofness and ironic detachment in favor of transparent directness, confessional earnestness and sometimes even unabashed sappiness.
Many would be quick to attribute this phenomenon to Adams' recent vow of sobriety, but it's always difficult to ascertain what dictates the path of an artist, and employing 'post hoc ergo propter hoc' and searching for contemporaneous events in someone's life isn't always conducive to adroit insights, as this 'evidence' is just as apt to mislead a spectator as offer any astounding revelations.
Regardless of the catalyst for this new modus operandi, its implications for the album are severe. Cardinology lacks the genre exercises and versatility that typifies much of Adams work, as it's the second album in a row to tread the same waters, it lacks the edginess that informs much of his output and it assumes a certain forced intimacy that's at odds with the his customary persona.
This seems to leave little to recommend the overall product, but thankfully that isn't the case, as the caliber of the songwriting on Cardinology compensates for many of the album's liabilities. Boasting some of Adams' finest melodies married to strong yet spare arrangements and deft musicianship, the album hosts a handful of full-fledged classics that compare favorably to some of the erstwhile Whiskeytown frontman's best offering in the alternative country genre.
Born Into A Light, Natural Ghost and Sink Ships are a trio of grizzled, world-weary anthems that may not sport the best lyrics but evade the pervasive mellowness that animates just a few too many tracks on Cardinology, emerging as a rougher counterpoint to the serene beauty of Fix It and Evergreen which are quite accomplished numbers in their own right.
Elsewhere the riff rocker Magick likely wouldn't stand out in any other context, a solid and punchy if somewhat derivative affair, but thanks to its status as the solitary rock song on the album it becomes an absolute highlight that injects a greater measure of diversity into the mix.
The closer Stop, however, is a colossal misfire, as if Adams was operating under the erroneous assumption that a lengthy, enervated ballad with painfully slow, overly emotional vocals will inherently constitute a cathartic masterpiece. In reality Stop is far too bland, trite and nondescript to amount to anything more than tedious filler, failing to register on either an emotional or intellectual level.
Ultimately, though, Cardinology is a long awaited return to form for Adams, and easily his finest effort since Cold Roses. It's certainly an imperfect work, far too mired in sweet lyrical clichés and alternative country genericism, but thanks to Adams' skilled craftsmanship nearly each track has something worthwhile to offer.
Admittedly I'd be irked if Adams followed Cardinology up with yet another alternative country opus, as his entire career has been predicated upon the unpredictability of his discography and it's clearly time for another genre shift, but for now a single repeat can be forgiven, particularly one that boasts melodies and performances as strong as the set that Cardinology offers.
The facts surrounding III/IV should be enough to fill even the most ardent of Ryan Adams fans with trepidation, and I'm not even referring to his facetious comment that the album is 'a concept rock opera about the '80s, ninjas, sex, cigarettes and pizza.'
Originally written and recorded in 2007, III/IV remained in Adams' vault until it was randomly released to the public three years later. Worse, its material is culled from the same sessions that yielded the lackluster Easy, Tiger. The notion that the tracks that comprise that mediocrity are the cream of those sessions hardly bodes well for what threaten to be the dregs of those performances.
Furthermore, III/IV is a double album, an indulgence that rock artists tend to shy away from unless they feel supremely confident in the quality of their material. It's hard not to be skeptical that III/IV qualifies for such a distinction given that Adams left the album in limbo for years while releasing the tepid Easy, Tiger and the decent but unremarkable Cardinology.
Fortunately, these fears are promptly dispelled after listening to III/IV, Adams' first pure 'rock' album since the entertaining if fan-polarizing Rock N Roll. Part of its success can be attributed to good timing. Before the release of III/IV, for the first time in his solo career the ever-versatile, erstwhile Whiskey Town-frontman released two consecutive albums in the same genre, namely the alternative-country duo of Easy, Tiger and Cardinology. While III/IV obviously can't ward off potential creative stagnation, given that it was already complete before Cardinology was even recorded and released, it can act as a palate cleanser for critics and fans alike, rejuvenating mass interest in an artist who was on the verge of being thought of as stale.
There's far more to recommend III/IV than good timing, however, as the album may very well be Adams' finest outing since the (deserving) fan favorite and critical darling Cold Roses. Comparisons don't end there. Just as Cold Roses marked the pinnacle of Adams' alternative country albums, the same can be said of III/IV when it comes to straightforward rock and roll.
Invariably any discourse about III/IV will involve comparisons to Rock N Roll, and while I find that album to be severely underrated by many I would most certainly call the long-shelved opus the better of the two. This is only natural, as Rock N Roll suffers from some dramatic limitations by virtue of its status as a parody.
It's not as if Adams fails to pen strong melodies on Rock N Roll, but he tends to rely on mimicry thanks to the album's focus on humor and (sometimes) good-natured send-ups. Thus Adams' artistic presence, a crucial component of much of his work, is drastically deemphasized, as he allows his identity to be subsumed by impressions and impersonations that have little to do with the artist himself.
As a result of this artistic displacement, many of the tracks on Rock N Roll lack Adams' customary craftsmanship. Adams focuses more on accurately capturing the essence of his subjects than penning original melodies. In the interest of authenticity he often contents himself with a clever parody rather than a creative riff or vocal melody. He never wholly neglects his songwriting, but the final product is frequently more simple, primitive or generic than what one would expect to encounter on a Ryan Adams album.
On III/IV, this is seldom the case. The album is filled with catchy tunes and memorable hooks. Adams still relies on certain key influences (even, once again, The Strokes), but he merely derives inspiration from them, never emulating, or even parodying, their work. There's also a humorous side to the album, but III/IV never becomes the joke or novelty that some would, half-correctly, categorize Rock N Roll as, and it's clear that in the intervening years a maturation has occurred.
From the catchy pop-rocker Star Wars to the anthemic Ultraviolet Light, III/IV offers a veritable host of Ryan Adams classics. It may not be as cohesive as Adams' mock comments would suggest, but III/IV is hugely entertaining, providing an array of memorable riffs and irresistible vocal melodies. It's clear that Adams has found his own rock and roll voice, with no need to borrow so overtly from others. Just as on Love Is Hell Adams made alternative rock his own, on III/IV he conquers rock music, bending it to his will as opposed to bending himself.
I wouldn't dispute that Cold Roses is the better of the two, but in some respects I find III/IV to be the more entertaining. Part of this is due to my partiality toward rock music and my novice status when it comes to country or any subgenre therein, but it can also be attributed to a certain immediacy that III/IV has. It's loud, fun and almost defiantly straightforward, and while it still has artistic worth it can also be viewed as pure, unadulterated enjoyment. This is Adams' rock music rather than Adams' imitation of rock music, and he does the genre proud.