Whilst Ryan Adams has never truly ceased to be prolific, the stream of new material has slowed in recent years, at least compared to the glorious three-albums-in-11-months period that gave us Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29. Halcyon days indeed. Oh, it’s not like he’s gone silent: we’ve had III/IV, a double album of Cardinals archive material that served mainly to demonstrate why none of the songs made it on to Easy Tiger, and of course Orion, an album of unlistenable metal about aliens. Yay.
All that, however, seems to have allowed Adams to return to something simpler and more elegant. There’s a delightful sweetness to “Lucky Now”, the advance track. It’s classic Ryan Adams, but less tortured than Heartbreaker or Love is Hell; not unreminiscent of Easy Tiger actually. Could it be that marital bliss suits him? Praise be to Mandy Moore!
There are a few other reasons to be excited about this album. It is produced by the legendary Glyn Johns (Eagles, The Who and, bizarrely enough, Fairport Convention’s Rising for the Moon) which just might make Adams the first artist to work with both Glyn and his son Ethan Johns, who produced Adam’s debut album. It also features among its guests Norah Jones and Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), all of which bodes well for an album positioned firmly at the tight, focused, 3-minute-song end of Adam’s artistic spectrum.
and the aforementioned “Lucky Now”:
Ashes & Fire is released 11th October.
If all the big mags can have end of year lists then so can we all, right? Yay for the democratising power of teh interwebs, or something… I’ve written about a few of them already, so I’ll just link to these with brief, flippant executive summaries and you can click through to the full reviews should you so wish. Consider them all recommended:
Too bluesy, but if that lets Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench show off a little, it’s probably not such a bad thing after all. Docked points for not touring Europe yet, about which I will continue to sulk until they do so.
The best Wailin’ Jenny cuts loose, makes solo album and tells us how she really feels, in the process writing a couple of heartbreakingly incisive love songs, meanwhile gathering around her a strong cast of guest artists including most of Crooked Still and her fellow Jennys.
LA band that no-one had ever heard of suddenly rocketed to, well, slightly greater fame thanks to Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz and his obsession with Twitter. They put the album up for free download, which many of us took advantage of. I wrote about it. They promptly retweeted my review and caused a small virtual stampede in the process. Great songwriting, tasteful banjos and mandolins, nice people, heartwarming story of modern day goodwill between musicians and music fans.
Brian Fallon and co return, make an album that isn’t quite as good, or quite as Springsteen-y, as The ’59 Sound, but seeing as how that was a slice of almost undiluted genius, this one is still quite good actually. Unfortunately, there are no Tom Petty lyrics hidden in this one, just a U2 line, which isn’t nearly as cool.
And now, the rest. I look forward to seeing whether you agree with my choices!
Midlake – The Courage of Others
Even if for no other reason, this would merit inclusion purely for the astonishingly detailed study the band made of early Fairport Convention LPs (see track 9, “The Horn”, for the best Richard Thompson impression anyone has committed to tape in recent years). Indeed, if I were scrabbling around for reasons to put this in, I could do worse than mention that they originate from Denton, TX, a college town home to the University of North Texas with a special place in my heart. As it is, it’s really not necessary to resort to such underhanded tactics, because The Courage of Others is one of the best albums I’ve bought in the last few years and a worthy successor to The Trials of Van Occupanther, a favourite that still gets a lot of play round these parts. TCoO is darker than TToVO (mmm…ungainly abbreviations) though, almost exclusively in minor keys and riven with a sense of foreboding and an epic scale. “Acts of Man”, “Core of Nature”, “In the Ground”; the song titles rightly suggest big themes and a kind of reverent mystery. “I will never have the courage of others / I will not approach you at all,” sings Tim Smith on the title track, just one of a number of lyrics laden with sinister couplets. The idea of cycles and seasons pervades a number of them: in Winter Dies, he sings
As the spring is made alive the winter dies
And the final cries of creatures are long behind
And full of spirit the village starts again
With one more year for a man to change his ways
amidst countless other references to the earth/ground, seeds, growing, dying, no more so than in “Core of Nature”:
I will wear the sun,
Ancient light through these woods,
Woods that I walk through alone
I will take my rest
Several of them have hymn-like qualities, resonating like big pipe organ swells, echoing like empty cathedrals with their choral harmonies. Woodwind textures feature heavily too, with the flute particularly prominent, all giving credence to the suggestion that Tim Smith harbours a latent admiration for Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
All in all an astonishing achievement, a coherent artistic statement the likes of which we see all too seldom from popular music in today’s major-label-dominated world. Give thanks then for Bella Union, the artist-run, London-based label with the faith to let Midlake create.