Saturday, July 11, 2015

Album Review(s): Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams (2014) & Live at Carnegie Hall (2015)

Not my new car, but close
I’ve got a new car. It’s black*, compact, very sporty, and it’s all mine – as opposed to being the “family car”. It feels a little bit like the middle-aged male equivalent of the “little black dress”. I mention this mainly because it also has quite easily the best car audio system I’ve ever had the pleasure of using on any regular basis, and it’s changed the way I’ve been listening to music over the past couple of weeks. I’m in love with it, and I’ve been driving it as much as possible. Every day, even. I feel like I’ve finally arrived in the 21st century, yet for all of its other-worldly-state-of-the-art-ness, that car audio has also seen me take a step back in time; back to CDs and (whisper it) mainstream radio. For whatever reason, music on disc just sounds so much fuller and crunchier than that found on my rather extensive – and admittedly far more convenient/transportable – collection of mp3s. In the past week, I’ve even gone out and purchased a couple of brand new CDs specifically for the car audio experience. I know, right? Who does that these days?

The first of these was the recent Ryan Adams album, (Ten Songs) Live at Carnegie Hall. I picked this one up because next week I’m attending a Ryan Adams gig here in Wellington and I wanted to get a feel for what Adams is like on stage. The Live at Carnegie Hall album features music from two New York gigs in November 2014 so it’s all very recent and I saw it as being quite relevant to what we can expect on this current tour. I’m really pleased I have this one on CD (as opposed to other forms) because it really does sound immaculate – crisp and lush – and it’s a genuine keeper. (note: I’m not saying all CDs sound this good *generally*). The second CD purchase earlier this week was the much hyped Jamie xx’s ‘In Colour’, but I’ll cover that off in another post.

I’m a relative latecomer to the music of Ryan Adams. I’ve had a copy of his acclaimed self-titled 2014 album for a while now, and I’ve listened to that a fair bit, but I’ve got nothing from his vast back catalogue, not Heartbreaker or Gold, and not a thing from the Whiskeytown or Cardinals eras. For many years I only vaguely knew his music. I saw Adams – perhaps incorrectly – as something of a flagbearer for Americana, and I always felt he was far too prolific in terms of output to have any sort of quality control filter in place – I mean, there was something like 13 albums and seven EPs in a dozen years 2000-2011 …

Nope, for me, Adams was just another one of those artists “other people” raved about. But that 2014 “comeback” album, after a three-year hiatus, changed all of that. So ahead of next week’s gig I thought I’d offer a short review of that album, and something similar for Live at Carnegie Hall. I’ll just as likely have a review of his Wellington gig in a couple of weeks. You might say I’m now a fan, but let’s wait and see.
Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams (2014)
Hearing ‘Trouble’ (the third single off this album) more or less instantly changed the way I felt about Ryan Adams. Or at least it led me to this album, which ultimately had that effect. Here was an authentic slice of unpretentious rock n roll music packaged up in a sumptuous sonic burst lasting less than four minutes. Yet, with the benefit of freshly-acquired hindsight, ‘Trouble’ probably isn’t even the best tune on the album. That mantle surely rests with the superb (Grammy-nominated) opener ‘Gimme Something Good’, which sets things up nicely for what follows – an almost perfect blend of mid-tempo guitar-driven 70s-tinged rock, and a collection of slower softer jams. In the former category we have tunes like ‘Am I Safe’ and ‘Trouble’ itself, while the latter description covers off songs like second single ‘My Wrecking Ball’ and the more plaintive ‘Shadows’, both of which succeed in bringing Adams’ singer-songwriting skills into sharper focus. Adams co-produces with renowned multi-instrumentalist Mike Viola, and the album features cameo appearances from ex-wife Mandy Moore (vocals) and Johnny Depp (guitar). This album has been slow burner for me, and it’s really only over the past few months that I’ve started to appreciate just how good it is.
Ryan Adams – Live at Carnegie Hall (2015)
When I say I purchased Live at Carnegie Hall on CD (above), what I actually mean is I picked up the short 10-track version of a much larger set. Not the actual 40-plus-track, 200-plus-minute, six-LP box set. So I’m reviewing the abbreviated form here, not that massive career-spanning overview (life’s too short). This version covers snippets from the two nights at Carnegie Hall in November 2014, just five tracks from each night (ten in total). Nonetheless there is a nice mix of the old and new on offer – three tracks from the recent 2014 album (as reviewed above), three tracks from 2001’s Gold, two from “solo” debut Heartbreaker (2000), and two “brand new”/previously unreleased songs which present a slightly more folky or pastoral version of Adams. All of these songs are stripped back acoustic versions, all are quite lovely, and all benefit from pristine production. The sound is so clean and pure in places you could probably hear a guitar pick drop. Heartbreaker’s ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ and Gold’s ‘Nobody Girl’ immediately draw the listener in and work as an ideal one-two to kick things off. But the highlight here for me is probably ‘My Wrecking Ball’ off last year’s effort. There’s also some great between-songs dialogue from Adams, some self-deprecation about the depressing nature of some of his music, and some hilarious stuff about weed smoking. Quite aside from his talents as a singer-songwriter-musician, Adams comes across as quite the entertainer. This is a great sampler, and I can only hope next week’s performance comes close to the sense of anticipation created when listening to this. Though, to be fair, I suspect the upcoming Wellington gig will feature a full band.   
*My much suppressed inner-goth has always coveted a jet black car, which probably stems from being a teenage Knightrider fan.

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