Are musicians any more interesting than, say, insurance claims adjusters or systems analysts? Let's just say there are probably the same number of dull arrows in each quiver. So what makes Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams so interesting? What makes him stand out?
For starters, the puckish frontman knows how to push people's buttons. And he understands that people love contradictions--a country band that doesn't play country, a hipster who professes to love Fleetwood Mac, a sensitive megalomaniac ... . Another thing that makes Adams interesting is that he's always moving--shifting stylistically, from his early Gram Parsons/Uncle Tupelo fetish to an Eagles fixation to a recent obsession with Dylan, and physically relocating from his native North Carolina to Austin, New York and Nashville. For now he's settled in L.A., where he hobnobs with the likes of slobbering fan Elton John, recent collaborator Alanis Morissette and alleged one-time girlfriend Winona Ryder.
Ultimately, what sets Adams apart from his peers is that, at the tender age of 26, he's already written more great songs than some Hall-of-Famers do in a lifetime. Which brings us to the ambitious, already-legendary Whiskeytown swan song that's been held hostage during two years of record industry. Recorded in an abandoned 19th-century church in Woodstock, N.Y., Pneumonia is a classic pop record that is so pure, so free of pretense and at times so otherworldly, one gets the sense the band was cut off from civilization during its creation. Where Heartbreaker, Adams' solo debut, occasionally revealed his limitations, this album confirms the checks-and-balances value of a band dynamic.
Multi-instrumentalist whiz kid Mike Daly co-wrote seven of the 15 songs, including the excellent slow-burn soul number, "Ballad of Carol Lynn." Caitlin Cary's contributions on violin add great emotional depth, while her vocal harmonies provide many of the record's transcendent moments--e.g., a high fourth on the Nashville-ready "Crazy About You" and a repeated "Can I tell you now?" on the euphoric, Beatlesque "Mirror, Mirror." Along with Whiskeytown's trademark twangy pop comes a couple of thunderbolts. "What the Devil Wanted" is a creepy, hypnotic number led by a woozy piano. "Paper Moon" is a scratchy, lilting 78 that pits Adams' croon against an almost cartoonish orchestra of castanets, glockenspiels and hovering flutes. It's precisely the kind of song that should alienate half the audience and make the other half fans for life.
At the center of it all is Adams, precocious song-crafter, budding soul-singer and definite button-pusher. Despite its radical stylistic changes, Pneumonia's steady mid-tempo groove holds the record together so well it seems at times like a concept album. You know, with that sensitive megalomaniac as the concept.