Waxed: Ryan Adams + The Cardinals' Cardinology
Every once in a while, you'll come across an album that grabs you - not completely, but just enough to tug on you, bring you back, and keep you coming back until it grows on you. These are the albums you learn to love - not immediate successes per se, but the type of albums you want with you on a cold lonely night or a sunny summer drive with the top down.
When your name is Ryan Adams, you aren't afforded much leeway. Your albums are expected to showers, not growers, so to speak. Your career has been littered with hits and misses. Some folks call you a genius, some an idiot, and most a copy-cat artist, a musical con man. With each album you put out, you confuse and delight and annoy and exalt, all at once and all the time. But, for those of us who love you (yes, I love me some Ryan Adams), we love you precisely because you're a nut job, a delightful temper-tantrum tornado that spins out blissfully sounding melodies and heart-wrenching lyrics as often as you spew foul-mouth tirades and (not quite so often) ordinary sounding tunes that are too basic to be memorable.
Cardinology, Adams' latest effort with his superb backing band the Cardinals, is a grower, not a shower. The record does start with an attention grabber, with the hard acoustic riff of "Born into a Light" reaching right out of the speakers and pulling the listener's ear close, and harkening to a return of the excellent sound Adams and crew mined on Cold Roses. But be careful - the song and all it's wonderful steel guitar, driving acoustics, and lazy-casual vocals goes by fast, maybe too fast. "We were born into a light," Adams sings, and this birth is a quick one.
"Go Easy" is pleasant enough, but every time I hear it, I expect to hear "Halloweenhead" from Adams' last record, Easy Tiger. Something about the chords reminds me of that latter song, but the tune is quite listenable regardless of what it calls to mind (again, for a reason I can't explain, the song also reminds of the Eagles, and part of me hopes that they would cover it. Such hopes are baseless and retarded, but hey, it's fun to dream). The song ends with Adams singing, "you gotta go, you gotta go now" repeatedly, and ends almost as quickly as the first track. In fact, the first four songs, and six of the album's twelve, clock in under three minutes.
"Fix It" slides in and continues the Cold Roses vibe, but with a distinct Neil Young feel, complete with ragged chopping guitar and slightly accusatory, revealing lyrics. The albums first real departure from the collective vibe comes next in "Magick," which is... simply bad-ass. Any song about a record just gets my blood going. The Cardinals doing a phenominal job of capturing the nasty sound of Rock N Roll-era Adams. Lyrically, Adams follows suit: "Everything you touch burns, scorched earth," sounds like a perfect line from that garage rock record.
I originally thought that "Cobwebs" was the song that held this release back from being a Shower - the song at first sounds a bit too bland. Even though it reminds me a my favorite Adams album - Love Is Hell - it just seemed... amateur. For Ryan Adams, anyway. But the song is sticky, and gets better with time, especially when you give it a spin listening to headphones. It's not perfect - Adams wailing at the end of the track doesn't really do anything positive for me, and kind of makes me long for the beginning of the song - but it is full of little ear candy, a guitar or steel guitar lick hidden here and there for your listening pleasure.
"Let Us Down Easy" is quintessential Adams and The Cardinals, if such a thing exists, all laziness and melody and a few stretches that keep it from being too samey. But "Crossed Out Name" really jumps out, starting with just Ryan's voice and a dual chugging acoustic guitars. "When I close my eyes, I feel like a page with a crossed out name," he sings, as piano chords fall in. "I wish I could tell you just how I am hurt," and the hits keep on coming. This song is fantastic - all mood and melody, heart on sleeve, scalpel in one hand and guitar pic in the other. It's an instant Adams classic.
The Cold Roses feel continues (which I consider a good thing) on "Natural Ghost," which features a great groove. It's also not the first song where Adams' voice brings to mind Willie Nelson, certainly in tone if not in phrasing (Willie is the coolest jazz cat around who isn't really a jazz cat, after all, and his odd ways of lyrical phrasing are totally unique and pretty hard to cop. the southern wispy drawl, however, lends itself well here to borrowing). The band then settles gently into the groovy "Sink Ships." You might wonder if Ryan is really saying anything here, other than his usual territory of love and growing up and living as a musical genius and misunderstood poet (because, you know, that is so hard), and to be honest, I am not sure he is. Lyrically, the album sounds pleasant without being too confrontational or too thought-provoking - there's enough buzz phrases ("the war is over") to keep it interesting, and the occasional triumph like "Crossed Out Name," but for the most part this is standard fare. And that isn't always a bad thing, especially when it leaves plenty of room for the amazing musicianship of the Cardinals, which is a very good thing.
"Evergreen lopes around at a nice, lazy country-jazz pace, with echoy steel guitar and a few flourishes of honky tonk piano. The easy vibe continues on "Like Yesterday," which gets awfully close to swarmy tripe '70's pop, closer than Adams has come before, as he continues to push his vocals into flowery falsetto ranges - not his best work, for sure. But the song isn't so bad as to bring the album down.
Cardinology ends with the pretty "Stop," a song that starts with just Ryan, singing and playing piano. It sounds all wounded and vulnerable - the way the best Ryan Adams song do. When the cymbals slowly chiming in and the pianos slow, we get typical Adams' lyrics: "Slow down/ you don't have to talk/ lie down/ breathe/ stop/ slow down/ it's not your fault," and what seems pretty simple and basic usually ends up endearing in Adams' hands. Strings creep in and almost overwhelm the last verse and chorus. Is it pretensious? Of course, it's Ryan Adams, but as a whole, Cardinology avoids some of the worst trappings that Adams falls into while staying neatly nestled into the things he does best - namely, solid tunecraft with a little emotional vulnerability and very hummable hooks.
Cardinology probably isn't going to win Ryan Adams any new fans, and it might only give his old ones enough of a taste of his best work to satisfy them for only so long, but it isn't a bad record. I'm not sure it meets the grand expectations that come with any Adams release, but it's a likeable, pleasant listen, with a few grabbers, a few toe-tappers, and a dud or two. And really, that's ok. It's ok to be a grower, not a shower. After all, so many of us can relate.