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Rock n Roll
Artist: Ryan Adams
Label: Lost Highway
Length: 14 Songs (48:43) 

As a History major I understand that there is a very specific way of citing sources.  There’s a convenient little “add footnote” button on word, and there are books to tell you exactly the order and information to put about the author you are quoting or reproducing ideas from.  A rock and roll album does not have these devices.  Ryan Adams’ though, in a token of unprecedented humility on his part, is doing his best to find a way of citing his sources.  It is no coincidence that there are fourteen songs on his new album, it is no coincidence that the first song is entitled “This Is It”, and no coincidence that there is a song entitled “Boys” on the album… Ryan Adams is in a way clicking the musical “add footnote” button to Paul Westerberg, the Strokes, and the Beatles respectively.  At this point I must, as a reviewer, do what Ryan Adams is doing here and echo what others have said. I’m not the only reviewer who will tell you that this is pure Paul Westerberg.  If you’re privileged enough to have a copy of Paul Westerberg’s first solo album 14 Songs, throw it in the cd player directly after listening to _lRock n Roll_… yeah, uncanny isn’t it? It even seems to have thematic similarities in bitter love.  Also both albums have  great humorously vague songs in “Silver Naked Ladies” (Westerberg) and “Do Miss America”(Adams) When Ryan isn’t channeling Paul Westerberg, the driving pulsating guitars evoke the Strokes (it’s no secret Ryan has entirely covered song for song “Is This It?” in his past). Although the first song shows this most clearly, “So Alive” is like Jeff Buckley and the Strokes were on tour and closed with a blow the roof of the joint encore compilation.  Don’t worry Ryan gives a footnote here as well. This is the fifth song, and the fifth track of Buckley’s Grace is the similarly titled “So Real,” and Adams’ song features the lyric “So alive it isn’t real.”  Let me add it is amazing, one of the album’s highlights.  You get the point though, this album has a lot of influences.  The title is basically in fact is looking at rock and roll in a mirror and giving us what he sees.  The result for the listener in true Ryan Adams form is to take it or leave it. That’s really where you, the buyer have to draw the line. I mean if you want a strokes album, why not just buy a strokes album? A valid question. 

One answer to this question is convenience.  If you want to hear 80’s glam-rock and all the aforementioned sources in one place, this is an affordable place to start.  Not only that but it’s important to note that Ryan isn’t just ripping off other rock and roll peers, he’s picking darned good ones, and like a good mix tape, you can hear them all at once except under a greater coherency of being performed by one man, and that bring us to the next point.

Through in the citing of sources and reading of this as simply a rip-off album, I think the assessment of this album is wrong to stop there.  There’s not a cover song in the entire bunch, and at their core the songs are original and unique as being very “Ryan Adams.”  Adams lets you know this right off the bat, telling you as soon as the music kicks up “Let me sing a song for you, that’s never been sung before. All the words were meant for you, and never been said before.” Sure a lot of this music has been played before, but the words haven’t. The lyrics do not forsake the original cutting edge draw that his past ones have.  Though this is the first time they aren’t the main story.  There just simply isn’t a moment as bright as “When the Stars Go Blue” (Gold), “My Winding Wheel”(Heartbreaker), or “Paper Moon” from Adams’ former band Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia.  The music though is better than ever and most of the time you get so wrapped up you stop even hearing the words. Though the lyrics are provided and are still quite excellent on their own terms.  Some examples of this are clever words like in “Boys”, “I’m as lonely as boys, I’m as lonely as boys, I’m as lonely as monkeys taught to destroy anything they learn to enjoy”. Also the insightfully clever line from “The Drugs Not Working”, “She was a hooker at the age of sixteen, all she wanted was the money she didn’t need an I.D. She was a junkie, and I know its cliché, but then so was her life, I mean she lived in L.A. And it was making her cry… but it was making her high”.  Interesting comments on the human condition. 

So there it is, Ryan Adams has given his listeners an album showing off his musical knowledge and playing the music that he loves.  Fortunately enough for us though he’s still Ryan Adams’ and he’s still lovesick.  The title track still propels the character of Ryan Adams which is still one of his draws…

Everyone’s cool playing rock n roll…
I don’t feel cool at all…
Send all of my best out to the band
I don’t think I’ll make it to the show
There’s this girl I can’t get out of my head…
And I don’t feel cool at all.
When all is said and done, it’s still all about some girl with Ryan. He’s still empty and longing and wants us to know it.  In this album he gives us enough to know that while that’s still true, regardless he’s going to play us the music that he loves to give us his picture of rock and roll.  In the words of Paul Westerberg “Gotta take something to make you feel good, Something ain't me but I wish it could finally find something to believe. Something is me”[i] It seems to be at the core of what Ryan Adams is all about. 

Matt Kilgore 11/9/2003

[i] Paul Westerberg, “14 Songs” (Sire Records, 1993), Track 12

Stocki finds The Strokes, U2 and Nirvana lurking in the new Ryan Adams album, warns of its din to sensitive ears but questions the expectations of the music critic.
 
It is hard for the young rock ‘n’ roll star. The Rolling Stones have hardly changed their formula in 40 years but the young guns in a generation that is conditioned towards attention deficiency and change by their always having a television remote control in their hands have to reinvent themselves every new release. We are the flickaholic generation and it shapes the rock critics expectations. After breaking up Whiskeytown, who had already made at least two classic albums (Strangers Almanac and Pneumonia), Ryan Adams, by the time was in his mid twenties, had released three solo albums of varying textures and hues but all with one thing in common; his genius! Adams toured solo and as a near-punk rocker, he seems to have written eons of songs that would have been left on the shelf ten years ago but live on through downloading in one form or another off the web. He is so big he has arrived at the door of the begrudgers who know they have built him up with the next-big-thing story. Yet now they need to change their story to yesterdays-star-turns-crap in order to sell press to that attention deficient generation.
 
So arrives Rock n Roll. It is almost as if Mr Adams wants to play into the critics’ hands. Maybe the hint was the title of his previous release; the out-takes album Demolition. Adams seems to want to deconstruct and boy, does he. This straight ahead, stripped back rock ‘n’ roll, which is what he labels it just so as we might not be taken by surprise, is somewhat of a departure. The critics were bound to hate it or were they just glad they had a bone to chew on in bringing him down to the size he was before they started to elevate him to Parsons proportions?
 
Adams and listeners are more and more acutely aware that the man is a little too talented for his own good. Or again, maybe we have been distracted by the critics and their good! He can turn his hand to too many genres and styles. He can be Bob Dylan or the Strokes, Gram Parsons or U2. It must be hard to decide when so many options are available. Born with a remote control in his strumming hand also makes it difficult for him to not be constantly on the move, which is probably why Whiskeytown ended way too quickly. 
 
Getting away from Adams genius to the actual music recorded and sold, you can hear the disgruntled reviews from the first very loud riff. Yet what you can also hear is the very same spirit that has made the Strokes the Ryan Adams of today. There even seems a nod in their direction in the song being called “This Is It.” He does live in the same city, shares a building, and for a time, a management company with New York’s new punk rockers. Had Adams brought this album out first and then headed towards an Exile On Main Streetor Grievous Angel, would the past and present tense ink of the critics’ nib written very different reviews?
 
You can never say it too often; this is loud and it does rock. A few songs begin with guitar riffs that cause the listener to wonder if the cover has mistakenly dropped a B from the Ryan, but don’t fear. By halfway through verse one it is very clear which Adams this is! As well as the Strokes, there are moments, like on “So Alive,” when he has stolen Edge’s echo chamber and added it to a Morrisey vocal. Kurt Cobains’ ghost haunts not only in the grungy ragged vocal chorus of “Shallow” but the wondering with a song like “Note To Self: Don’t Die,” as if Adams is on some self destruct roller coaster. There are also more familiar structures as in “Wish You Were Here,” “Burning Photographs” and “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home.”
 
In the end, Adams is putting his penchant for melody and prolific songwriting abilities onto another musical template. It is likely to be more momentary than Heartbreaker, Gold or Strangers Almanac and there are a few songs that do not grab the attention as Adams so often does but this is nothing more than a direction change, don’t fear any of loss of form. Some of his fans have ears that will be offended by the din but we should never confuse taste with quality. Though this album steals its influences from various cult bands of the past 20 years, it sits snuggly alongside the Strokes, White Stripes et al in the time of its creation with some killer tunes strewn across it. It is almost Adams starting to act his age and compete with his peers.
  
Strangers Almanac never seemed like a twenty three year old record; Ryan Adams was so much older then but he’s younger than that now!
 
Steve Stockman 11/17/2003
 
 

Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He has just finished a book on U2, Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2, is the poetic half of Stevenson and Samuel who have just released their debut album Gracenotes, and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or night @ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web page--Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.

 

   
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