Songwriters’ Ball: New albums by Ryan Adams, Rhett Miller and Beck

BY JEFF LEVEN

Alternative country is dead! Long live alternative country! I never knew what that phrase meant anyway. When Uncle Tupelo recorded No Depression back in 1990, the decision to harness the country-folk ethos of Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie and imbue it with the hardscrabble garage punk of the Replacements or the Ramones just might have meant the birth of a genre. But since then, the line between an “alternative country” auteur and a songwriter who happens to have the occasional banjo or mandolin accompaniment has waned. Back when Dylan recorded Blood on the Tracks or the Stones recorded Let It Bleed, it was all called rock n’ roll anyway. And so again today, it seems that supposed alternative country acts represent a major, major percentage of that vast and curious semi-underground that consists of bands just big enough to get talked about all the time in music magazines but not quite big enough to ever hear on the radio or think of playing on TRL. And even then, though, the times they are a’ changin’ — Ryan Adams is fast becoming something resembling a household name, and as other good-looking sensitive types of his ilk (the Old ’97s’ boyish frontman Rhett Miller being a good case in point) make the move to the mainstream and established acts like Beck get folkier and twangier, the line between underground and limelight is fast fading for those in cowboy boots and acoustic guitars. The past few weeks have seen three major releases from what are perhaps the three key players in this phenomenon and for good measure, we’ve reviewed ‘em all:

Ryan Adams Demolition: After his last album Gold put him on everyone’s hot list, rumors began to abound that Ryan was working on nothing less than a four-disc follow-up. For a guy who seems to write three songs on his way out of bed in the morning, this didn’t sound impossible, even if it did sound impossibly pretentious. One disc, word had it, was a reworking of the Strokes’ Is This It, undoubtedly cut for fun between art gallery openings and cocktails with Elton John. You should probably never trust the Internet on these sorts of things, but it smacked of pure, vintage Adams — brash, funny, self-consciously brash and funny, and probably a bit too self-involved for his own damn good. Perhaps sensing the impending backlash, Adams pulled up short and instead released Demolition, a modest thirteen-song hodgepodge collected over five different sessions in Nashville, Stockholm, and Hollywood. As such, Demolition is hard to place — it just feels like a bit of a compilation — full of songs that are independently strong but collectively anonymous.

While he doesn’t break much new ground here, Adams displays his range with ease. “Desire” and “Cry on Demand,” are gentle, pretty musings with a certain anthemic quality to their choruses that he hasn’t really emphasized since his Whiskeytown days. Likewise, “Chin Up, Cheer Up” is a nice little dose of country charm. “Starting to Hurt” and “Nuclear” are mid-tempo rockers that manage to glisten without being overproduced. While he warbles occasionally, Adams’ voice these days can just as easily sound like a poppy slick Christopher Cross as his older, more Mark Eitzel-esque lump-in-your-throat-rum-poet persona. “Dear Chicago” and “Tennessee Sucks,” for instance, are earnest and beautiful as always, but surprisingly light in their touch. Only on the album’s closer “Jesus (Don’t Touch My Baby)” does he bellow out a heavier musing that actually sounds strikingly like what Beck is playing these days (see below), but not quite as rich- there’s a certain leaden quality to the song that robs it of some accessibility. Overall, one gets the sense that Demolition doesn’t lead in any direction in particular, but instead documents a prodigious talent faced with too many choices and armed with too many poses, gestures, inclinations, and abilities to sort it all out at once.

Rhett Miller The Instigator : Even their most devout fans could be forgiven for just assuming that Dallas’ Old ’97s are simply a vehicle for their charismatic singer/guitarist Rhett Miller in the same way that Whiskeytown revolved around Ryan Adams. Interestingly enough, in this, his second solo release (but first on a major label), Miller demonstrates that there was much more to those collaborations than meets the eye. Miller with the Old ’97s is kind of like Buddy Holly fronting Johnny Cash’s band — smart, charming pop floating blithely atop the railroad rumble of a grit-caked honkytonk rhythm section. Take out the twang, and the result is a more unadulterated and polished pop — still very smart and enjoyable listen, but on the whole a bit less interesting.

Miller’s deadpan tone and unrelentingly witty wordplay remain intact — his plaintive vocals on “Four-Eyed Girl” (the album’s true gem) rank with Old ’97s classics like “Barrier Reef” or “Big Brown Eyes.” But what’s missing in many cases is the very thing the ’97s lend to his delivery — a certain swing and bash and groove that in his solo context he is unable to replicate. Indeed, even his attempt to recreate the ’97s’ sound on “The El” just seems a bit overstudied by comparison. Miller is best on this album when he veers more into Rivers Cuomo territory on songs like “Four-Eyed Girl” or “Our Love,” and lets guitarist and producer Jon Brion unleash the album rocker within. Ironically, in some ways The Instigator bears Brion’s fingerprint as much as it does Miller’s, and clearly flourishes like the heavily-layered Blue Oyster Cult guitars on “I Want to Live” are a treat courtesy of Brion alone. Overall, one leaves The Instigator with the impression that Miller is one of those writers who feeds off of his collaborators, rather than entirely generating his own atmosphere. Certainly Miller’s recent fashion spread in Maxim and his occasional appearance on TV suggests that there are some out there set on making Miller into his own industry, but if this album is any indication, that move might be a bit premature.

Beck Sea Change: In the same way that Ryan Adams all but advertised the fact that his first solo album Heartbreaker was a response to a bitter, wounding breakup, so too has Beck been upfront about the fact that Sea Change documents a painful time in his life. But if the challenge of an artist is to take the bruised undersides, confusing thrills, and ebbs and flows of the human experience and channel them into something that has a viscerally communicative power — something that speaks to others while sharing something of the self — then Beck has served his muse well here. Better than well. Simply put, this is absolutely stunningly, beautiful. As heartbreak albums go, this is Van Gogh — effortless, profound, and realms beyond what even most talented contemporaries (like Adams) could ever hope to accomplish. That being said, perhaps the most disarming thing about this album is how pretentious it’s not. While Beck has always been prone to genre study, Sea Change has a simple coherence that transcends and even defies concept. Coming off the heels of Midnite Vultures, which was all sex and porn and camp and inside jokes, this album feels like the weightiest thing in the world, with its soft, cozy, melancholy waft and Beck’s surprisingly sympathetic low-register vocals.

on the back burner long, and I’m guessing not much was written before midnight, either. The twelve songs here tend to slide into each other like segments of a
sedative dream, elaborate but uncharacteristically subtle.

As such, no song in particular stands out as a distinct highlight — “The Golden Age” sets the mood and “Sunday Song” serves as a type of anguished crescendo, but really separating the songs is like trying to parse where one wave stops and another begins. This is a mood album — a cocoon for lonely nights, a postcard from the wee hours of a bleak weeknight, a dirge for the weary but still standing. With Sea Change Beck has finally made the transition from oh-so-smart culture vulture to genuine genius — it’s an arresting masterpiece.

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