Music Reviews

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals III & IV

(Pax Am) Rating - 7/10

Ever read a Ryan Adams review where the words prolific and quality control weren’t used? Me neither. Well, I for one accepted his approach and ethos some years ago, so it’s never really been an issue. For some, however, it still burns a raging degree of anger, with every new release comes the usual quip of ‘disappointment’ and ‘wasted opportunities’. However, truth be told the issue with Ryan Adams varying styles and albums lies more with the listener than the artist. Essentially, everybody has their own favourite version of Ryan Adams – be it the drunken shambolic country punk of Whiskeytown, the gleaming pop and rock shuffle of Gold or Demolition, the introverted and piano based works of Love Is Hell or 29, The Cardinals and the Grateful Dead inspired country jams of Cold Roses or Jacksonville City Nights and hell, some just straight out hate it all, so should probably just stop listening by now. You get the point though, this is an artist that doesn’t lie still; I still only mentioned half of his records above and it’s clear the amount of genres he has worked within. So when a new Adams album is released, what usually is the case is that if it doesn’t tick that particular person's Adams box, they disregard it, often with vehement force, as they feel a degree of resentment that the artist isn’t working to their interpreted version of his ‘best’. So in essence, Adams tends to piss more people off when he releases a record than he does please.

For an artist so restless, he does have a tendency to dip into his past as much as he does explore the future. Almost all of his albums since 2005 have featured reinterpreted or re-recorded work of older songs. So, his first album since 2008 (minus the metal record Orion he made) is rather strangely a collection of demos, outtakes and unreleased material from The Cardinals, recorded in various sessions from 2005-2007. The result? A generally coherent and crisply produced selection of outtakes that is the rockiest thing Adam’s has done since Rock n Roll, with the occasional timbre of Love Is Hell thrown in.

During this period Adam’s gave up drink and drugs for good, but I suspect some of these recordings were perhaps made when he was still partaking, as they exude a snarling degree of bite and punch that has most certainly been vacant from Adam’s work since - the calm in his life certainly transcended into a milder and often blander output on Easy Tiger and Cardinology. Either that or his very recent new approach to life had reinvigorated him - some of the lyrics may suggest this or certainly that a change is afoot. These moments of seething intensity and brutal guitar lines are the ones that undeniably work best. Adams has been known for pissing around under monikers making silly music from home, but these songs have structure, significance and often a sneering delivery. I can understand people’s frustrations with Adams to a degree because the guy can write a song or a hook in a flash-in-the-pan or throwaway moment, that really shouldn’t be thrown away - but ultimately it just adds depth to his career and makes releases like this one interesting instead of a turgid slog. There are hooks a plenty on this record and the nods to some of Adams' influences are still there - from the Smiths to the Replacements. Ice-Breaker is a flat out ball-buster, while Kill The Lights is inescapable in its grip over you, perhaps the first air punching song Adams has ever penned. Wasteland sees that vocal overlay of screaming that made the grittiest parts of Love Is Hell so spellbinding and is a welcome return. It often plays like a grown up version of Rock n Roll – which was all cocaine, adrenaline, anger and resentment (at his label) – that ended up as erratic as the environment it was made in, but interestingly, was still better than most ‘indie-rock’ records made in 2003.

The production (Jamie Candiloro) is in many ways quite exquisite and brings out everything in Adams you want to hear. It’s got a great tonality and texture to it that gives Adams' voice just enough room to rise above it. There are some songs that are right to be outtakes here, they toil that middle ground that Adams can on occasion slip into, and it’s when he’s at his ‘nicest’ sounding that often leads to the most uninteresting work. For the large part however, this is a great delve into a period of transition in Adams' life and musically in The Cardinals (there was a lot of personnel change at this point). It’s nice to hear a bit of fire in his belly and growl in his voice. It’s sometimes forgotten that Adams is a great rock singer, as his later output has focused considerably more on higher pitched and cleaner tones. This album has a bit of dirt to it too - the Cardinals can sound both ferocious and restrained in equal share, which makes for a varied and often unexpected listen. For a bunch of songs recorded in a few days that never got properly released, they exhibit a degree of vivacity, excitement and coherence that many officially released albums would be grateful to have. Perhaps a lot of people are confusing the word frustration with jealousy when they refer to Adams.