While Whiskeytown fans await the release of the band's long-completed follow-up to Strangers Almanac, rumored to be held up until next year, both Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary have new product on the shelves to tide fans over. Unlike most side projects or solo outings, both artists shine like the stars they deserve to be.
The enigmatic Adams, who reinvents himself every few months or so, delivers 15 new tracks produced by Ethan Johns, with a "band" comprising drummer Johns and husband-and-wife team Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. For the record, Johns is the son of legendary '70s Stones producer Glyn. Adams changes his song-writing technique with the ease of a kid in a vintage shop who's discovered a pile of old hats: Here's an early-Dylan Greek fisherman's cap. Here's a dusty Stetson ... hell, forget the hat; put some hair spray on that bedhead.
The album opens with a brief in-studio argument concerning a Morrissey song (Hey, you can be No Depression and still dig the Moz), then launches into the Blonde on Blonde-esque "To Be Young" (is to be sad, is to be high), with Adams' nasal twang putting the band in a salt-rusted Ford up on Highway 61. "My Winding Wheel" is Adams' most wrenching vocal to date, one of those great "ode to a woman" songs where his voice cradles the words, wraps around them and finally breaks in all the right places. "AMY," I'm guessing, is a taste of what we'll be getting on the forthcoming Whiskeytown release: a Revolver-esque, quietly psychedelic number with harmonies, Chamberlin strings and other Beatley touches.
Adams doffs a sky-blue Nudie suit for "Oh, My Sweet Carolina," bringing in former Grievous Angel herself, Emmylou Harris, to harmonize. Elsewhere on the album, Adams goes for an organic, spare approach, his voice backed only by his acoustic guitar, occasionally embellished with folk-rock drumming (Johns often uses brushes) and the occasional submerged organ swell or strummin' banjo, as on "Come Pick Me Up." (Wait ... isn't that the title of Superchunk's last album?)
With all the mid-tempo acoustic tracks near the end, the album starts to drag, but Adams pulls out a raunchy Gun Club-style stomp on the track 12, "Shakedown on 9th Street." The album closes with "Sweet Lil Gal," a song featuring Adams' lone vocal over a reverb-washed "Holocaust"-style piano. Overall, heartbreaker showcases Adams' emergence as a powerful vocal stylist now possessed of the confidence to bare himself lyrically, revealing a sensitivity you always knew was there.