Tuesday, October 4th 2011
Reviews: Ryan Adams
Since leaving the ground breaking y’alt rock outfit Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams has done it all. He has made punk rawk records, jammed with members of the Grateful Dead, created a Sci-Fi thrash metal masterpiece under the moniker Orion and even put out a record that makes the somber sounds of Elliot Smith feel like a sun soaked field of daises filled with kittens and cupcakes. If that’s not enough for you, Oasis mastermind Noel Gallagher has gone on record as saying that Adams is the only person to ever get the song Wonderwall right. So what’s the next chapter for the man who has done it all and is returning to the spotlight after retiring in 2009? The answer is 43 minutes of mellow and manageable music.
To appreciate Ashes & Fire (listen to the full album), one must understand where Adams is coming from. A large reason for his retirement in 2009 was his due in part to his struggles with Ménière’s disease. Ménière’s is a disorder of the inner ear that wrecks havoc on ones hearing and balance. In announcing his retirement, Adams said “I am, however, ready for quieter times, as I think it is very evident I am struggling with some balance and hearing issues.” With this knowledge, it wouldn’t make sense for Adams to record a companion piece to his 2003 punk inspired Rock N Roll at this time. Adams has said he has had to relearn how to make music and Ashes & Fire is the first, logical step in that process.
The album’s opening track, Dirty Rain, is a down home yet subdued southern rocker at heart. Heavy acoustic guitar, minimal percussion and just the right amount of ivory tickling makes the listener crave an unexpected mid-day thunderstorm. You can feel the humidity from the Allman Bros. inspired organ playing that creeps up later in the track while Adams strong vocal effort crashes down upon the listener like lightning from the sky.
The quiet nature of Ashes & Fire continues with the album’s stand out title track. With keyboadist Benmont Tench on loan from his day job with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Ashes & Fire is driven by the sounds of a ragtime piano and would work perfectly as a score for a Spaghetti Western film. The guest list for Adam’s thirteenth studio album does not end with Tench. Norah Jones guests on three songs including the tender ballad Come Home. When Come Home reaches the bridge and the two join together to sing “As the years grow longer I will be here by your side, ashes to dust and storm by storm, forever I will always be your love” there is a certain chemistry and magic that takes an otherwise standard song and transforms it into something special.
Known for his prolific songwriting skills, Adams has always flown under the radar as a guitar player. Building from a simple acoustic riff and lyrics ripe with self-reflection, Do I Wait features a brief yet triumphant electric guitar solo that would fit perfectly on any of the material recorded by his on again/off again backing band The Cardinals. Speaking of The Cardinals, one must wonder if Chains of Love was leftover from that era as it is the hardest rocking (yet still acoustic) number found upon Ashes & Fire.
Having worked with everyone from The Beatles and Bob Dylan to Blue Öyster Cult and The Clash, producer Glyn Johns is Ashes & Fire’s secret weapon. He manages to find just the right levels of sound between each song, knowing when to have a slide guitar or pump organ stand up for a brief moment while never allowing the various instrumentation drown out the messages in Adams’ lyrics. Invisible Riverside is a fine example of this behind the board craftsmanship as Johns blends multiple guitars and organs as Adams softly sings “I wanna lay my hand on your shoulder, stay with me my love, now and when we’re older, standing by the ocean, we got now the time, yes, don’t let go, don’t change your mind.” These lyrics could be easily lost below the sea of sounds, but Johns makes the two elements work nicely.
Another stand out track found on Ashes & Fire is Save Me. With backup vocals courtesy of Jones and Adam’s wife Mandy Moore, Save Me could easily be the eleventh track on Neil Young’s timeless 1972 release Harvest. Adams even displays a touch of that trademark Neil Young nasal heavy vocal style as he sings “Somebody save me, it’s just too much pain, if someone can save me, come the morning I will remain” during the songs first chorus. Save Me manages to sound massive despite being very simple and is the albums A Man Needs A Maid moment.
When Adams returned to the scene earlier this summer with Lucky Now, many (including myself) predicted that Adams had returned to his country roots. Lucky Now is a great song, but manages to stick out like a sore thumb on Ashes & Fire. The song is far too upbeat and energetic and clashes with the overall mood of the record. While the perky nature of Lucky You made it the natural choice for a lead single, the song should have kicked off the record instead of sneaking up on you towards the end of the album.
Have no fears, Adams brings it back down about ten notches and wraps up the album with the beautiful piano driven I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say. If there is an overall theme to Ashes & Fire, it’s that love has saved Adams from his inner-demons. When Adams sings“I was lost, I was lost, Trying to find a balance, caught up in the course. Let it go, when I met you. All The clouds parted and the light came shining through” it’s hard not to think back on all the struggles he has faced since rising to fame. Adams has come a long way from his days of breaking bones from falling off stage and leaving strongly worded voicemails to rock critics who failed to see his genius and it shows with his latest release.
When you take into account that Adams is now married, has struggled with Ménière’s disease and has grown up from his days of giving the tabloids something sensational to write about, Ashes & Fire is a perfect portrait of exactly where he needs to be at this moment in time. While the songs on Ashes & Fire are well written, the music is anything but dynamic. If his 2002 punk-inspired album Rock N Roll is the soundtrack for your Friday night ragger, then Ashes & Fire is the record you throw on Sunday night before you hit the hay. It’s clear he is making the record more for himself then for his diverse fan base. In the event the mellow and mature sounds of Ashes & Fire don’t tickle your fancy, chances Adams will move onto the next chapter in his impressively eclectic discography and have something new on store shelves before the Mayan Calendar expires on December 21st, 2012.