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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1213

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Ryan Adams: Heartbreaker
by George Graham

(Bloodshot Records 071 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 09/27/2000)

For the last couple of years, rock bands seem to have divided themselves into two broad camps, those who embrace the pop sounds -- some would say cliches -- of the 1990s and 2000s, and those who appear to think that the only music worth emulating was made before about 1974. At first the so-called roots-rockers were a bit of a novelty, refreshingly resisting the sound of synthesizer pop and hip-hop influenced rhythms, and embracing the rock's folk, country, rockabilly and bluesy roots. But as growing audiences of two generations and increasing numbers of young musicians themselves embraced the unpretentious musical honesty that the roots rock offered, the style has almost become another pop culture phenomenon, with the imitators following the originators, and the usual pop music industry glut of album releases by those me-too bands. At least these groups have their hearts in the right place, and their music, even when not very innovative, remains pleasingly free from most pretense.

Of the dozens of bands to emerge from the scene, one of the more noteworthy was Whiskeytown, which formed in North Carolina in the mid-1990, and made an impressive national debut with an album called Strangers Almanac. Since then, the group has been bouncing between record companies and threatening to break up, playing a continuing series of supposedly official farewell gigs. But in the meantime, the group's front man and main songwriter Ryan Adams has released his own album called Heartbreaker, and it turns out to be a real gem: a kind of laid-back, acoustic version of Whiskeytown in an introspective mood.

While 25-year-old Ryan Adams may not be quite the eloquent troubadour poet and lyricist as a Bob Dylan or a John Gorka, not too many people are, and Adams does hint at that kind quality through his music, especially in his delivery of the songs through the wonderfully sparse backing the CD provides. For his album, Adams collaborated with two of the current generation's best neo-traditionalist folkies, Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings, in this Nashville-made album. A notable cameo appearance comes from Emmylou Harris, while production and various multi-instrumental duties are undertaken by Ethan Johns.

Heartbreaker is a well-named album. Despite the engaging instrumental sound, the lyrics are mostly rather sad, ranging from unrequited love to seeming contemplations of suicide, but there are a couple of more conventional love songs, plus a road song. The sound of the album is an interesting blend of influences, almost none of which come after about 1970. There's early electric Dylan, the ballady folk of someone like Tim Hardin, some bluesy rock along the lines of very early Rolling Stones, and even some hints of the Beatles' psychedelic-era, along with stretches of quiet solo folk acoustic guitar backing. Through it all, Adams remains an engaging presence, at times sounding vaguely plaintive to almost sardonic in some of his more bitter lyrics. All that variety makes this a much deeper and downright absorbing recording than many in the roots-rock field.

The album's first tune is one of its strongest rockers, To be Young (is to be sad, is to be high). Musically it sometimes comes off as a kind of rockabilly version of the early Stones, before veering off in a folkier direction. <<>>

That is followed by one of Heartbreaker's real highlights. My Winding Wheel is a kind of oblique love song, nicely done in a classic Dylan folk-rock mode, summing up the best of the current roots-rock school. <<>>

Emmylou Harris appears on Oh My Sweet Carolina, a laid-back song of a homesick rambler, and it's another of the album's pearls. <<>>

Rather a different direction is taken on Amy, which seemed as if it started out as a folk song, but ended up taking a turn toward the Beatles. Lyrically it's one of the album's most straight out love songs, and features producer Ethan Johns on the old-fashioned Chamberlain string simulator instrument. <<>>

The haunting neo-Appalachain folk sound of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings is featured on the track Bartering Lines, which comes across as oddly powerful, despite its rather opaque lyrics. <<>>

The desolate mood of the lyrics reach their height, or perhaps depth, on To Be the One, a song of unhappy parting with subsequent self-destructive feelings, made to sound all the more lonely from the solo setting. <<>>

The other strong rocker is Shakedown on 9th Street, about an old fashioned street rumble, turned into a kind of vaguely unsettling rockabilly. <<>>

Though most of the songs seem personal, Adams, perhaps inspired by presence of Gillian Welch, penned a song written from the standpoint of an old, struggling farmer. In My Time of Need, is one the album's best pieces of lyric writing, with wonderfully understated backing from Ms. Welch and David Rawlings. <<>>

The album ends with a song called Sweet Lil Gal with Adams at the piano, which is one instance where the songwriter crosses the line into gloomy angst. <<>>

The songs on Ryan Adams' appropriately-named new album Heartbreaker for the most part are not the kind of material ideally suited for his band Whiskeytown. These are mostly sad, introspective compositions, and the economical, at times solemn, mostly acoustic musical settings work especially well. The presence of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings adds much to the record, as does the eclectic approach of producer Ethan Johns, who guided the CD from solo acoustic laments to Beatles influence. The result is an engaging record that highlights the songwriting of the front man from one of the best of the young bands on the roots rock scene. Just don't pay too much attention to his lyrics if you're in a sad mood, though, as it may get you down some more. But musically, the album is first-rate.

Our grade for sonic quality is a solid "A." Though there are a few little artifacts of the analogue recording process like a bit of tape hiss, the mastering preserved a wonderful dynamic range, with soft songs and passages remaining soft, and the loud material really having an impact. I'm always complaining about the way most pop albums are compressed to sound like a bad commercial radio station -- annoyingly loud all the time. It's nice to be able to praise an album for doing right by the music sonically. Kudos to veteran mastering engineer Doug Sax.

With roots rock bands seeming like a dime a dozen any more, this worthy solo album by one of the bright lights in the field provides a fine new addition to the genre.

(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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