Ryan Adams writes a lot of good songs. Last year, he released two exceedingly different albums: Heartbreaker, his solo debut, and Pneumonia, the post-breakup farewell from his alt-country band Whiskeytown. The former was a largely acoustic supplication of lost love while the latter bounced with a McCartneyesque melodicism uncommon to country. Gold, too, is a tremendous album and, filled with harder-edged rock a la Exile-era Stones, just as distinct.
The sole common denominator among Gold's 16 songs is Adams' talent for imitation. In turn his voice appropriates Van Morrison's croon ("Answering Bell") and Paul Westerberg's rasp ("Firecracker"). On "New York, New York" he invokes Graham Parsons by putting country scrutability to a rock beat ("Livin' in an apartment out on Avenue A/ down on the corner of tenth/ had myself a lover who was finer than gold/ I've been broken up and busted up since"). "Sylvia Plath" evokes Joni Mitchell's most piquant melodies.
But, with no verse, chorus, chord, or shudder distinctly his own, Adams lacks his predecessors' vividness--their Oh Wowness. Gratuitous production further blunts Gold's effect. The ambiance tends toward radio-rock homogeneity. The saxophone on "New York, New York" wanders like Branford Marsalis with the Grateful Dead rather than honks like Bobby Keys with the Rolling Stones; C.C. White's howling makes a howling mess of "Nobody Girl," and milquetoast electric guitar abounds.
Adams also lacks his forebears' myopia. Blessed with hindsight, he skirts their worst excesses; he never sounds as goofy as Graham or as self-pitiful as Westerberg. Adams delivers perfect anthems and ballads, without interruption. There is another songwriter who plies his craft, almost unfailingly, with Americana visions and a derivative rock 'n' roll sound. To Adams' credit, there's a reason we call that guy The Boss.
King of Yesterday
File King of Yesterday under dirty little secrets, as embarrassing as a porno collection and as poignant as razor scars inflicted in the wake of a high-school relationship.
Jude Christodal's got a formula -- wrapping distressingly observant lyrics inside sweet-as-honey pop melodies and icing it all with his Broadway Baby voice. This works so well because by the time you realize what a troubled young man you've got on your hands, you've already slept with him. Twice.
With King, Jude has improved his focus on production, and the album blossoms. Throughout each track, his barbed guitar work leads you deeper into each song, where contemplative piano structures and modest percussion cradle Jude's clear voice. With "Everything I Own," there is a trace of irony in those pipes, a hint that while Jude is willing, you're never, ever gonna be ready.
"Indian Lover" is dark blue Jude as Annie Wilkes:
"If you go at last and/leave me here I will/slowly run the gas into.../it'd be invisible and fingering the match/I'll strike one mortal final blow/for every fool dispatched/I'll retire in my pyreing inferno."
"Sit-ups" is the coke-snorting, tooth-flashing Jude, with its streak of white-boy funk that manages to take itself seriously amongst the scantily clothed guitar rock and vintage "Sledgehammer" vibe.
"Oh Boy" is bitterness through and through, with lines like "you depend on everyone to tell the world exactly what you are," "you've been fucking for fame since you were 16" and the venomous "you should keep a gun nearby/I hope you get the courage up./Dying young's the only way you're ever going to last."
King of Yesterday is packaged head and tail with versions of the title track, candy bits for the casual listener. The layers of pop disguise the clandestine love affair between you and Jude, a teenage rock opera in the back of his parents' Crown Victoria. Jude hopes that King will get him to third base. You listen, and uncross your legs.
Meditation: Music for Relaxation and Dreaming
There are a zillion classical compilations on the market, all earmarked as suitable for relaxation. Some are mellow and even; the majority, however, are carelessly, even callously compiled. Who wants to sit down to a romantic meal by candlelight, only to discover oneself thrown into a romantic sea, tossed here and there by countless orchestral swirls, finally left for drowning in a surfeit of drama?
This disc is different. Whether you wish to use it for meditation, as accompaniment to yoga, or for background for a special meal, it works.
The CD's 12 classical orchestral selections, three of which feature solo instruments, will surprise no one. Among them: Massenet's Mditation from Thais, Mozart's Andante from Piano Concerto No. 21, Pachelbel's Canon -- to quote dance great Anna Halprin: "Why is everyone so excited about Pachelbel's Canon? We were dancing to it 60 years ago!" -- Faur's Pavane, the ubiquitous Satie's Gymnopdie II, Mahler's Adagietto from Symphony No. 5, and Barber's Adagio for strings. Regardless, the sequencing works. It's mellow, it's even, and it's simultaneously relaxing and uplifting.
Another plus is the quality of interpretation. You can find this music lots of places; where, however, are you going to find, on a single disc that's half the price of new issues, the likes of violinist Kennedy, pianist Ashkenazy and clarinetist de Peyer, as well as world-class orchestras led by conductors the calibre of Dutoit, Blomstedt, Gavazzeni, Mnchinger, Mehta and Marriner?
Is This It
The Strokes are a 2-year-old New York City quintet, retrofit late-70s' new wave with a poutier, more overtly cool, attitude. Every song on their 35-minute debut employs the same formula: Two guitars pound chords and short rhythmic figures, the bass plays no more than four notes -- always on the beat -- while the singer, Julian Casablancas, substitutes vogue exclamations for a melody. They rattle, cold and catchy, like early--Talking Heads, but opt for urgency over precision and sex appeal over intelligence.
Relationship talk and braggadocio make up the few lucid lyrics. On "Barely Legal" Casablancas sings, "I've got some secrets that'll make you stay/ I just want to turn you down/ I just wanta turn you around" and on "Someday," "My ex says I'm lacking in depth/ I will do my best/ You say you wanna stay by my side/ Darling your head's not right." All the way through, the words are post-punk pablum; Casablancas evokes urban debauchery with neither Lou Reed's genius for characters, nor Iggy Pop's rollicking bawdiness.
The album's most remarkable aspect is its exceptional un-production. The guitars jangle with the same, pedal-unaffected tone all the way through. There are no samples, synthesizers or horns. The only stylization is in Casablancas' voice and the fold out photos (leather, ruffled collars, carefully mussed hair).
Still, following an era of feel-good economics and Lou Perlman products, it's refreshing to hear an edgy pin-up band -- one predicated on arrogance and cynicism. And really, rock 'n' roll has never been a virtuoso's medium. Bands have generally preferred to stake their success on character rather than chops (or at least successful bands have). Thus, attitude is the primary commerce of this great dumb music and the Strokes' future looks promising.