Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cardinology - Ryan Adams & the Cardinals


Ryan Adams
Lost Highway Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

When you’re as prolific as Ryan Adams, releasing anywhere from one to three records in a given year, album titles are hardly worth stressing about. Most of them, as Adams himself has admitted, are hilariously undercooked proposals: Gold was his take on 70s Gold AM radio, Demolition was unsurprisingly a collection of demos, Love is Hell was about love being hell and RockNRoll was about cocaine, er, I mean, rock and roll? Hell, according to a recent Adams interview for Rolling Stone, even the lovelorn intimacy of Heartbreaker found its title as a tribute to his favourite Mariah Carey hit. So when Easy Tiger was a verbatim reference to something Adams’ girlfriend had once told him, it nearly seemed poetic; after years of relentless albums, tours, girlfriends and illnesses, Easy Tiger was the first Adams’ release in a year and a half, finding him focused and sober. In fact, much of that album’s press seemed smitten with Adams’ newfound sobriety; a journalistic novelty for the subject formerly plagued by slander that his shows were unprofessional, his albums required editing, and his persona was a drunken punchline.

Another fifteen months pass and Adams’ new thesis, Cardinology, presents us with a study of his band The Cardinals. Of course, any fan of Adams is likely a Cardinals fan as well; their contributions to Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and Easy Tiger (uncredited) reveal an outfit nearly as adaptable and multitalented as their ringleader, moving effortlessly from Grateful Dead noodling and country session band to classic-rock riffing. What defines Cardinology from past efforts is Adams’ back-step into the fold, where more than ever, he is a Cardinal instead of a prominent solo artist in front of a backing band. This union has been strengthening for years and their camaraderie is audible throughout twelve tracks of country-flavoured rock. Neal Casal contributes strong backing vocals, harmonizing with Adams or echoing his sentiments on laid-back ‘Natural Ghost’ and the riff-heavy ‘Magick’. Jon Graboff - in my opinion the Cardinals’ most crucial member - continues to build on his pedigree of brilliant pedal-steel performances, echoing the lazy romance of ‘Evergreen’ and rural warmth throughout. The power of this full band is unmistakable on lead single ‘Fix It’, a swaggering blues tune complete with Feinstein’s guitar solo and the powerful duo of Adams and Casal sharing chorus vocals.

Despite this well-honed group confidence, Cardinology offers another muscular argument: sobriety is damned boring. As Adams intones at one point “Be more like the trees and less like the clouds / stop moving around so much”, his narratives, fleeting and sparse, clearly reflect his cleaned up lifestyle. Where Love is Hell spoke poignantly or metaphorically about romance and death, or where 29 created interconnecting mysteries, plot-turns and characters, Cardinology discusses dead relationships, rehab, and how Adams retires to bed alone each night. If Easy Tiger suggested Adams’ wild days were behind him, Cardinology, lyrically at least, sounds convinced of it and roundly depressed. Exerpt (from 'Let Us Down Easy'):
“Instead of praying I tell God these jokes he must be tired of himself so much He must be more than disappointed
Christmas comes we eat alone a pretty smile surrounds a pretty girl who takes your order she yells it
and cries alone in the backroom once in a while until it stops”

Wait, what? How does one write ‘This House is Not for Sale’ or ‘Strawberry Wine’ while on heroin/coke combos, and then two years sober, write the fragmented lyrics above? These odd, scribbled phrases – that were occasionally visible on Easy Tiger – consume this latest effort, making one wonder whether Adams could clarify his words if he tried. Even when his lyrical talents, once biting and memorable, slide ever-closer toward the ramblings of a shut-in, Adams remains a thrilling performer with romantic regrets on the reverb-drenched climax of ‘Sink Ships’ and the pulsing melancholy of ‘Cobwebs’.

Earning more than a few comparative points to Easy Tiger with its no trimmings approach, Cardinology strikes even; it’s far more cohesive than its mixed-bag predecessor but occasionally suffers from its filtered classic-rock template. The record’s most interesting moments are those fragments of enlightenment Adams learned in rehab, where his pleas for guidance and recognition of past mistakes give his good ol’ rock and roll some gospel vibes. It’s among the slight progressions this record can boast, which after years of genre-shifts, finds Adams’ career at a standstill. Never has this once-misfit been so humble and inconspicuous on record; as a longtime fan, this phenomenon paints Cardinology as refreshing yet sporadically underwhelming.

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