Waxed: Whiskeytown's Stranger's Almanac

From the opening notes - hell, from the first little hammer-on - of "Inn Town," you just know something special has arrived. Let's not even get into the fiddle strains and sparse guitar. For God's sakes, we've got a classic on our hands before the little shit even starts singing...

That's bound to be your reaction to Stranger's Almanac if you have any good music sense at all. Whiskeytown released this classic alternative country album on the world in 1997, and if you haven't heard it yet, you don't know what you're missing. There is just something, some sound that Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary, and Phil Wandscher make together, that is priceless, timeless and perfect. Here the trio of singers/songwriters/musicians do their best to break your own heart tonight, and I'll be damned if they don't do it on every song.

Starting with the instant classic "Inn Town" is a good way to start. The aforementioned beginning doesn't even speak to how incredible this song is - musically, lyrically, totally. How could a kid, a young punk like Ryan Adams was at the time, write a song this good? "Parking lot, movie screen/ I can't feel anything/ Cigarette, beat up t.v./I can't feel anything," he sings, and you feel it. THEN the harmony vocals kick in, and suddenly you're a Whiskeytown fan... for life. If you can find a better tale of broken, lonely small town life, I'd be impressed. But you won't. "I can't say anything without dreaming," Adams casually tosses out, before returning to that perfect harmony chorus - "Now that I'm Inn Town."

It get's better. "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" is so much more than a broken down country song, and that's before you find out it's a duet with ace Texas singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. Not to mention the incredible steel guitar playing - Adams, Cary, and Wandscher benefitted greatly from the cast of studio musicians that helped record the album, in between bands as the trio that was the backbone of Whiskeytown was. And with lines like, "Well excuse me if I break my own heart tonight/ some things are born too strong, they have to learn how to fight/ the situation keeps me drinking every goddamn day and night," there's a deep maturity to the heartbroken hard country of the song.

It is a shame that most of us didn't catch on to Whiskeytown and their cache of excellent albums until after the band dissolved and Adams went on to do his solo career. Songs like "Yesterday's News," pure Stones-y rock from Wandscher mixed with Adams' pure songteller sensibilities explode with both energy and innocence that frankly is missing from the latter's solo work, at least in such staggering quantity and quality as is found on Whiskeytown's brief, precious output.

"Got sixteen days/ fifteen of those nights/can't sleep when the bedsheet fights/ it's way back to your side," Adams sings on "16 Days." Somehow, the three culprits of this criminally excellent music managed to mix their superb musicianship and warm vocal harmonies around this boy-wonder's songs that are far too good, and far too lived-in, for his age. "Well your ghost has got me runnin' away from you." The album maintains it's strong start right through "Everything I Do," a forlorn lover's tale and an expert mixture of country ballad and soulful rocker. In fact, the way Whiskeytown mixes several genres of music can't be overstated. In some ways, they are as much a Rosetta Stone for the alternative country genre/culture as Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks. And just as deserving of praise.

"Houses on the Hill" is somber and sweet and tired and aching, the three singers voices intertwining in just the right places. It's the sound Ryan would mine almost exclusively for his first so album Heartbreaker, but instead of the intensely personal, this song is a story about somebody else's life, and that what makes it so sad and relatable. We've all known a broken widow, a woman left without because of some other man's war. "Turn Around" starts out gentle enough before churning into a raging storm of a rocker. It's also as good a place as any to sit back and just enjoy guitarist Phil Wandscher's excellent guitar playing, as well as the myriad tones he strangles out of his instrument throughout the record. His playing takes a simple folk song and makes it something extraordinary. Adams hasn't had a sideman or co-contributor as gifted as Wandscher since Whiskeytown, and that's evident here.

"Dancing with the Women at the Bar" is another song Adams should be too young to write, but he does it anyway. He's proven himself an expert at capturing human emotion at it's gritty best and worst, and this song is no exception. Not to be overlooked, either, is Caitlin Cary's solid contribution. I'm waiting for the day that Adams and Cary cut a record together, supporting each other and meeting on common ground. I might be waiting a while, but if it happens, the flashes of brilliance on this record proves it'll be worth the wait.

Stranger's Almanac continues its excellent song cycle on "Waiting to Derail," and open, cascading tune, reminiscent of U2 without being derivative. While Adams solo work frequently gets compared to other artists and he is sometimes called a copycat, it's hard to saddle Whiskeytown with such a claim - they manage to make their songs sound uniquely like Whiskeytown, whether because of the myriad of styles they've mastered or the unique gifts, tones, and sounds each of the three primary members contributes.

Adams refered to "Avenues" as "everyone's favorite Whiskeytown song" in an interview in No Depression magazine, and it's no slouch of a song, for sure. It's sweet and self-assured, a soft tune full of warmth and a bit of innocence that Adams could still convincingly deliver, and contains his trademark haphazard bad language that litters his later work. But "Losering" is the tune I return to time and time again. Whether because of the off-kilter nature of the song, or the harmony vocals, or just the strange way it builds, trickling at first and never becoming a full raging river, it's a favorite. Maybe it's Cary's violin playing, which I can never seem to get enough of. Maybe it's just because there's no such word as "losering." No matter, it sets a great mood for the end of the album, beginning the bookend to an excellent statement by a young, up and coming band.

"Somebody Remembers the Rose" returns to the slow, melodic country-rock burn this band does so well early on, hooky and full of ear candy without overpowering the affecting, simple tune. The atmospheric strains that kick of "Not Home Anymore," the albums closing track, borrow from the eerie mood of "Losering" in a familiar way, and the song wraps up everything great about Stranger's Almanac - the expert violin touches, the tasteful guitar tones and elegant playing, the harmonies to die for, and the finely crafted touches of the studio musicians who helped round out the lineup for the recording of the album. It's not the surefire hit that some of the other songs would be in a perfect world, but it's a competent and fitting album closer, more like an accessory to a great gift than the gift itself. It does speak to some of Ryan's later work, especially the low key moody rock he would explore fully on Love is Hell.

It's rumored that the band recorded over 30 songs for Stranger's Almanac, and I have to wonder, what haven't we heard? What would we have heard had this great band survived to record not one more, but half a dozen more albums? Would the talents and contributions of Cary and Wandscher have been enough to temper the mad genius of Adams, into making more concentrated, fleshed-out and complete songs as are evident here? Looks like we'll never know. But for what it is worth, Stranger's Almanac is one hell of an album, for Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams, alt-country, and/or otherwise. Give it a spin and welcome yourself to a whole world of deep, passionate music you might be missing. You won't regret it.

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