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A Tale of Two Ryans

 

Ryan Adams: Demolition

Lost Highway, 2002

Rating: 3.4

   

Matthew Ryan: Dissent From the Living Room (Please Don't Rock Me Tonight)

Plastic Violin, 2002

Rating: 4.4

 

Posted: September 30, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Ryan Adams can't help it if he's been anointed country-rock's poster boy. After all, it's not his fault that some unimaginative and shameful wag dubbed Adams, back in his days fronting Whiskeytown, as the Kurt Cobain of alt-country, any more than he can help his name being one degree of consonant separation away from that of popular '80s pretty boy Bryan Adams. So no, maybe he didn't create the incessant hype that's swirled around him, in ever increasing amounts, since the 2000 release of his solo debut Heartbreaker. But as Demolition, a kind of sampler platter of songs from assorted demos recorded over 2001 and '02, shows, he's starting to buy into it.

The mythology concerning Demolition is that the prolific and apparently restless Adams, who pens songs at roughly the same rate as rabbits fornicate, had recorded enough material for four different albums, and his label, Lost Highway, originally planned to release all four at once as a box set. Cooler heads prevailed, although Adams has coyly hinted in the press that if Demolition goes over well, the box set could be revived and on shelves by Christmas. He might want to reconsider, since Demolition proves the least substantial work of his career to date.

Is it unfair to judge an album made up of various tracks that weren't originally planned to go together? Probably so, just as it's probably unfair to judge Demolition's track listing too harshly given that it reportedly represents the favorite tracks of Adams' deceased friend Carrie Hamilton. But Adams himself has likened Demolition as his own version of the Smiths' Louder Than Bombs, so in a way he's asking for it. Fair or not, however, the simple truth is that Demolition careens from slightly engrossing (spirited, raw-throated rave-ups like "Nuclear" and "Starting to Hurt," recorded with his raucous rock-country band the Pinkhearts) to the largely unspectacular.

Much of the problem with Demolition lies in its diverse source material. For one thing, despite Adams' reliance on tried-and-true themes of heartbreak and resignation, there's no cohesion -- unsurprising, given that the songs were meant to be parts of different packages. For another, Adams apparently has yet to view his prolific nature as a problem. Most artists can't come up with even one good album's worth of material in a year; does Adams really believe he could produce four? Actually, maybe not; he's also admitted in print that on their own, the four projected discs probably wouldn't be all that good. But as with 2001's Gold and Pnuemonia, the posthumous last Whiskeytown release, even the good songs on Demolition (and most of them are good) sport an offhand, tossed-off quality, which undercuts their emotional impact.

Which is a shame, really, because there are nuggets of real quality here. "Starting to Hurt," which in its opening bars sounds frighteningly like a Pixies cover of 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry," benefits from a rare less-is-more emotional approach, with Adams allowing the song to derive its power from his scratchy, raw-throated vocals. It's not a deep meditation or a self-important rumination, but its raspy energy, which recalls the sloppy strutting of early Replacements or Bash and Pop, is its own reward. "Dear Chicago," an affecting acoustic number performed by Adams and former Bob Dylan sideman Bucky Baxter, relies on Adams' more traditional (at least these days) delivery, all wistful melancholy and subdued defiance. But for every "Dear Chicago" or "Hallelujah," Adams tosses in a momentum-retarding "You Will Always Be the Same" or "Cry on Demand," which cover the same lyrical and musical ground he trod on Heartbreaker to better effect. Such plaintive numbers may please Adams' buddy Elton John, but they offer all the proof needed that Adams, who rather awkwardly affects a rebellious pose even as he preens for the camera in a Gap commercial, has traded in the mercurial buzz he generated as a bristling-with-potential "Next Big Thing" for a largely indistinguishable batch of slight, muted songs with about as much fire and rebellion as a Whitney Houston album.

Those feeling the loss of Adams' once-golden promise of vitality and distinction, however, should find much to like in the work of another critically-praised singer-songwriter named Ryan. Nashville-based storyteller Matthew Ryan also was pegged as a "Next Big Thing" -- or perhaps more closely, "Big Thing After Next" -- with the release of his grittily poetic 1997 debut May Day, which earned him heady comparisons to the likes of Steve Earle (who gave Ryan his own seal of approval), Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. But whereas Ryan Adams' star has risen steadily in contrast to his quote-unquote "edginess," Matthew Ryan's albums seem to have garnered less and less attention, even as they've each marked a rise in his abilities and the amount of fire in his belly. Many critics took a dim view of East Autumn Grin, Ryan's 2000 follow-up to May Day, which aimed for the big-rock bleachers of latter-day U2 or the Waterboys (and earned this writer's nod for best album of the year, for what that's worth). Subsequently dropped from Interscope, Ryan took a different tack for his next effort, the spare Concussion, which he released on Waxy Silver, the independent label home of Will & the Bushmen. Despite some underground praise and a duet with Lucinda Williams, however, Concussion made even less of a blip on the music buying radar than Grin.

Coincidentally, Ryan's most recent work, Dissent From the Living Room, is also a collection of demos, recorded, according to Ryan, "in living rooms and basements with the help of a few friends." Despite (or perhaps because of) that lo-fi approach -- and despite Ryan's release of the disc on his own web site, claiming a lack of patience as the obstacle to releasing it in another form on another label -- Dissent is no less affecting, unsettling and authoritative than any of his previous works. It's also his most adventurous work to date, musically speaking, veering from the traditional songwriting structures of his previous albums for a diffuse, ethereal feel. "Such a Sad Satellite" welds rapid-heartbeat percussion, atmospheric effects and subliminal tape hiss to Ryan's grainy vocals, recalling a late-night ham radio transmission of a Radiohead b-side sung by Steve Earle. Likewise, "The Ballad of So & So" contrasts a jagged guitar with sullen, supernal keyboards and Ryan's affected growl, while the minimalist progression that girds "After the Last Day of a Heat Wave" underlines the solemn resignation of Ryan's typically caustic and bittersweet delivery of lines like "We're the last car in the pileup." And the instrumental "Emergency Room Machines Say Breath" (breathe?) builds a steady, repetitive tone of hospital-bed malaise.

But not all of Dissent sounds like Ryan's version of The Fragile; the minor-key moodiness of the elegiac "No Going Back" recalls Grin's more redemptive moments, its downbeat denouement of a failed relationship offering a sour shred of hope against a bleak emotional undertow, while "Anymore" could be a last-minute, too-breezy out-take from Concussion, axed for its interruption of that album's stark Nebraska vibe. And a pair of demos of Grin numbers, "Demoland" parts 1 and 2 (covering "I Must Love Leaving" and the aching "Still," respectively), actually prove more effecting than their more-produced doppelgangers. But the strongest of these more traditionally Ryan numbers is the buoyant and bitter "Into the Sourdays," with Ryan subtly burying lines like "That's my wish for you/ to be thirsty and barely hold water" in a toe-tapping, crowd-pleasing arrangement.

Dissent From the Living Room, in its casual risk-taking and its unflinching emotional honesty, is the antithesis of Demolition's decidedly less risky musical approach (blustery garage rock and contemplative VH-1 balladry) and the by-the-numbers formula of Adams' assembly-line songwriting talents. In a perfect world, Adams' lazy resting on his laurels would earn him a calling out from the critics, and Ryan's brutal, poetic songwriting would make him a star. As for this world, just be aware that if Demolition's empty calories leave you still hungry for substance, there's an intriguing and forceful alternative waiting to be discovered.

 
Living Room Furnishings
Dissent From the Living Room is available through Matthew Ryan's official site, www.matthewryanonline.com.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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