Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Didn't Know What I Was Looking for, Maybe Just a Blanket or Artifacts -- Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac

Its been a busy few weeks, so I've been a bit quiet. Tonight's not much of an exception: I'm going to see my favourite band tonight (Coheed and Cambria). I've been dancing around genres of late as always, from sampling Dead Boys and more Sparks to Luna and the solo albums of Fugazi's Joe Lally to my first round with Cocteau Twins. I've spent most of my time fiddling a bit with "alternative country" and "country rock" (the latter courtesy of Gram Parsons's Reprise albums with Emmylou Harris). The most consistent culprit for this is a band that was originally from and heavily recorded in this area: Whiskeytown. Ryan Adams has gone on to endless solo work (usually described with a pithy comment about the sheer volume of it), and I've found myself stuck on a normally maligned album of his (Rock and Roll), but Strangers Almanac has a veritable stranglehold on my listening, be it here at home, in the car, or wandering around playing with my Toshiba tablet.

This isn't the place to get too much into the causes of emotional resonance, but it's worth noting that that element is a strong part of what is pushing it up the listening list so readily and regularly of late, and it means something that it has the resonance, even if the "why" of it isn't immediately relevant here.

The band's name was one of the ones I'd hear periodically and only develop associations of "supposed to be good, according to certain realms of the music world," and I saw the vinyl reissue in my Borders when we dabbled in selling those big ol' slabs of black stuff. By then it was labeled very clearly, "RYAN ADAMS' FIRST BAND!" and most issues to this day share that notation. Being unfamiliar with them, the grumpiness that likely results from "His solo stuff doesn't sound the same, so don't steal credit from the rest of the band," did not develop in me--nor the weird, bitter anger that I see consistently fly at the volume of his released material. Still, I knew nothing of his solo work then, either, so that was meaningless to me--I knew Adams was popular in the modern indie scene, I knew he was one of the artists thrown into the "infallible genius" category by his fans, both things that tend to make me shy away from artists: there's an impenetrability that comes from an intense or obsessive fandom, sometimes, that discourages dabbling or experimenting.

It was, of all things, watching Elizabethtown, Cameron Crowe's maligned celluloid source of "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" where Adams' early solo song "Come Pick Me Up" happened to catch me at the right time (the middle of the night) in the right mood (melancholic) and affect me immediately. I snagged Heartbreaker almost without pause (except it was the middle of the night--I had to wait for CD Alley to open, of course). When I started talking about the album a bit, it was my father who asked if I'd listened to Whiskeytown yet, and I said, no, Strangers Almanac was "too expensive" and referenced the deluxe edition (given the existence of one, I'm nearly guaranteed not to settle for less). I had the impression this was the important album, though I had no real idea--I tend to think that a company taking the gamble on a probably-overpriced expanded version and the money for packaging, paying an essay writer, and mastering the unreleased tracks means there's an audience and thus some value to be found. So, while the main thrust of Christmas for me last year was the jealousy-inducing acquisition of the Smiths Complete set (the one with vinyl and CDs, which is severely limited), my father snuck in a copy of the deluxe edition of Strangers Almanac.

Before I started my usual habit of quoting lyrics randomly (mostly through my personal Facebook account), the first words I typed were simple: "Yeah, okay, I get why we're all supposed to listen to Strangers Almanac now." I've been increasingly hyperbolic as it sits in all of my various playing mediums of late, and I mean every word of my love.

The album cover itself never helped me to get a grasp on what kind of music, sound, songs, or band I would be dealing with if I listened to it:

Even now, I find it a bit inscrutable, yet entirely appropriate. Somehow the bright, friendly and colourful flowers against a dark, cloudy sky, the black border, the "stamped" band name and the clean, clear cursive album title all fit the album exactly as they should. I could attempt to tie each to some element of the album's sound and meaning, but that doesn't seem right, to break it down like that.

The interior--which is to say, the music--is reasonably considered "alternative country," that modern strain of music derived from country but not produced by the major studios of Nashville with that pop sound that tends to blend a lot of it into a distinct and consistent sound: the one that occupies most radio stations, playlists and personal collections now termed "country." I find that genre near impossible to relate to, but alternative country--whatever that really means--has done quite well by me for some years. I attended a John Hiatt/Lyle Lovett acoustic show a few weeks back with my father, and Lyle is almost definitively dropped in that category (as is his ex-roommate Robert Earl Keen, or Ryan Bingham that I've mentioned before, so on and so forth). To an extent, it means "acceptable country music for intellectual elitists," but I don't want much to get into that--I'm a bit guilty of that sensibility myself, and that's a little too close to the negativity I don't want this blog to exhibit. In any case, though, we have pedal steel, lap steel, mandolin, Wurlitzer organs and plenty of playing that stems from country music, though, which means that anyone, especially those who feel they are not "country" listeners will immediately gain the sense that a lot of the album is very "country." And it's a fair designation.

The album starts at a dragging pace, as if crawling home drunk and depressed, but just a bit bitter and acerbic with "Inn Town" as Ryan intones, "fifty cents or a dollar three, I don't owe you anything, spent a life on a heart that would rather not feel anything." Typically, a song like this would close an album, but that odd placement just goes out the window as Ryan counts off the next song, "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight," which immediately begins at a loping pace with all of those country instruments competing over Steven Terry's simple but driving beat. Even more sarcastic about heartache now, Adams repeats the song title and adds, "After all it's mine. Can I have it back sometime?" pushing away any sense that he ought to feel guilty for feeling down about it, then turning the guilt on its ear and back at the one truly responsible for the pain. Alejandro Escovedo steps in to drive the point as he asks, "Is this some kind of joke to you?"

Escovedo, incidentally, has a few peculiar tethers here: one of the negative reviews I read of Whiskeytown's third album, Pneumonia from 2001, suggested that listeners would be better off with the more authentic Escovedo. Of course, they've obviously worked together, and Escovedo has even noted that Adams' versions of his songs may eclipse Alejandro's own recordings, like the Whiskeytown version of his True Believers' "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over," which Escovedo said his own band had never recorded a truly good version of. That cover, incidentally, is one of the songs appearing on the deluxe version of Strangers Almanac, albeit a different version from the one originally released on the limited Strangers companion EP In Your Wildest Dreams. Alongside that, I stumbled into an interesting article about the two of them, with comments from each on the other, as Adams claims that Escovedo's "sense of love is just completely distraught; he seems more sympathetic to it than to regard it as something he actually wants, which is a viewpoint that I can appreciate."

The sense of emotion as the album careens off into "Yesterday's News," beginning to rock where it meandered then bounded, settling into the plucking and picking of "16 Days"' introduction that turns to more rock, before it all falls back down to the cold and solitary Hendrix-y riff that begins "Everything I Do," which is quietly backed by a low-mixed and sympathetic organ--a rather fully produced and realized yet cuttingly clear song emotionally, with one of my favourite lyrics: "She's got diamonds in her eyes/The kind she likes to hide/Seek and you will find/The hide-and-seekin' kind."

The band goes off to render the discovery of a distant story in "Houses on the Hill"--the love affair between Adams' (probable) lover's mother and a man who was in a war (sent by Eisenhower, so I would assume Korea, though it doesn't matter much in the end, and "Eisenhower" just fits the meter of the song perfectly), rendered by Adams with that sympathy he suggests of Escovedo, seeming to be immediate to him as narrator, yet described as distant, imagining the feelings of the pair of them, though he has no immediate connection to other.

I hate reviews that go through every song, even as I'm finding it hard not to: these descriptions will (hopefully) resonate with those familiar who already know it anyway and mean nothing to those unfamiliar. UMG has an iron grip on Whiskeytown's (lack of) appearance on YouTube so I can't include the songs readily here (some live performances exist, but fan recordings are often iffy on that front). I'd skip to the songs I like, but that would mean leaving out...Well, I wouldn't skip any songs at that rate. I don't feel capable of doing justice to thirteen straight excellent tracks, reviews about weak back-ends to the album notwithstanding (mostly notwithstanding the fact that there is no such thing here).

The sound of the album is perfect, as Caitlin Cary harmonizes regularly with Adams in addition to playing Violin, and does so in a perfect way, building a more complete shape on his voice where necessary, for emphasis, for unified thoughts or simply for musical perfection (if you'll pardon my hyperbole). Producer Jim Scott was quoted in the liner notes for the deluxe edition as saying that "Everything I Do" contains a very "broken" guitar part that he wanted to fix, but the band stood their ground and kept it as it was, to his credit Scott accepts that this might be the very "bruise on the apple that they were looking for." 

Guitarist/organist Phil Wandscher, Adams, Cary, bassist Jeff Rice and a slew of guests build the exact atmosphere for Adams' songs (four of which Wandscher co-wrote, and two Cary did the same with), managing the perfect balanced-imbalance that accompanies things like heartache. The lyrics shift from anger to sadness perfectly, comfortably and deftly longing for the return or appearance of lost or missing love, while turning on a dime to anger, frustration or caustic defense for no apparent reason, as people actually do. The electric guitars in particular enunciate this sense perfectly, while Cary's harmonies with Adams bring a note of hope and light to his morose, down-trodden and defeated vocals. 

There's a certain frustration for me, here: it's difficult for me to describe music in the first place, and worse when it feels close to me, or when I sincerely love it so thoroughly and throughout. I don't know there there is a good way for me to tell you exactly what is so excellent about this album, except all the nuances and the clumsy bits and the carefulness and the carelessness, the way it sways back and forth with perfect precision but utter illogic, making no sense and all sense at the same time, that opening drag somehow becoming the perfect choice. "Avenues" is primarily Adams and acoustic guitar, with a few notes from Rice's bass, and sounds as though it will be no more than this, and that it will fit, but light touches of keys dance in here and there, organ chords fade in and prop up the ramshackle mess of a strummed acoustic guitar and a lone male voice--something that is hardly unfamiliar in the music world. This isn't to say that the playing or the singing are "ramshackle" in and of themselves, they're just bare and simple, knowingly lacking in nuance of sound, working purely from emotion and tone. It's a song about being away and not wanting to be, and not being able to be anything but, and about accepting this and denying it and all of the things that go with the powerless place of experiencing them all at once--at least, to be fair, as I hear it.

"Losering" runs on long repetition of that very word, first over just an intermittent set of guitar picking, then picking up a shuffling, lazy beat from Terry, before it all pauses, holding in a breath, let out by the blare of a harmonica that opens the gates for the entire band and thick, strumming guitar chords to back it all as the song gains muscle and force, Terry's drumming more confident and adding a fill here and there, the new sounds unstoppable even when the song lets itself fall back down a bit, propelled forward to its end, eventually even Cary's violin comes in to accent the full sound, until it all falls back to nothing but a ringing chord, as Ryan's overdubbed "second" voice asks its listener: "Take a second to stop/Think about everything/See what you have been losing/Losering."

The final clutter of music and voices in "Not Home Anymore" ending perfectly, not just for its lingering pace, but for its confused build up of alternating thoughts and sounds, beginning with a clutter of heavily affected and muted guitar, before Cary's violin comes in with potential energy, the song flexing its muscles as Terry plays on the rim of his snare alone, intermittently interrupted with the ominous heartbeat of the bass drum. Adams voice alternates with itself, singing readily on one level and floating, ghostly, ethereal, pleading and distraught in the corners, as if to call out the insistent voices of the ghosts of the past and every thought in his head, until it all comes to one voice: "You, you are gone. You're gone." It seems as though he's talking of the things he's done to try to find comfort in this absence, leaving lights on to pretend nothing has changed, still unsure whether this loss is good or bad--"a mistake or a light"--the fact of it the only relevant, complete and real thought, in a scattershot collage of competing sounds, echoing and rattling in a newly empty space. Then the song starts to tense up, and finally release into the most complete musical form it takes, serving only to back that one thought: "You are gone." There's denial and avoidance and insistence that it "used to mean a lot, mean a lot to me, now it doesn't mean, doesn't mean a thing," but behind it he still sings: "You, you are gone," betraying the idea that it doesn't mean a thing--arguing more firmly that it never meant a thing, doesn't mean anything, until it's just the echo of a guitar and Cary's fading violin, finally all disappearing into the fading ring of an alarm clock.

I can't articulate fully how brilliant this album is, how affecting and accurate I find all of it emotionally. All I can tell you is that you need to hear this album, however you might feel about any participants, sounds, instruments or genres mentioned with relation to it. Do yourself this favour. I might recommend some band or some song more highly, but I don't know if I can recommend another album more than this one--at the least, at this point in my life.


  1. It's one of the few albums where I can honestly say that there's not a song on it that isn't straight-up great. Way to make that thought detailed and clear!

  2. And here I thought I failed at the "Detailed" and "clear" parts...

  3. If I may be so bold, a book that was written just for you:

    Just sayin'...

  4. Well that was a seemingly random comment, but I'm pleased it was a real one. I have been curious about that very book of yours, sir.

  5. Email me (I'm easy to find) & we can talk further. ;>

  6. You might find this of interest:

  7. Uh, wow, and then you expressed stances on his post-Whiskeytown that reminds me of my own, as did the Ledge's host. (I'm far less big on most of the Cardinals stuff, barring Cold Roses)

  8. Lots of people seem to like Ryan's Cardinals era best of all, but I just do not understand that -- and never will. How anybody could listen to Strangers and Cardinology and assert the latter is his best record, well... they just live in a different world than I do.

  9. I was more surprised than anything to hear multiple positive opinions of Rock N Roll first, though my new vinyl-trawling blog covered Gold (as it's the only one of all of them I've picked up on vinyl).

    I do actually also like Follow the Lights as the Cardinals go, which doesn't sound much like Cardinology, even if it was semi-contemporaneous.


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