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May 28, 2010

Favorite Albums of the Decade (2000-2009) – #6 – Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker – 2000

 Heartbreaker                                                                                  

“Up here in the city [it] feels like things are closing in
The sunset ‘s just my light bulb burning out
I miss KENTUCKY and I miss my family
All the sweetest winds they blow across the south

Oh my sweet Carolina
What compels me to go
Oh my sweet disposition
May you one day carry me home”

In my most recent post in this series I talked about Beck’s Sea Change, a break-up record felt at first listen, a super-sad extravaganza that came as a wonderful surprise, especially considering its source.  I was used to Beck being great musically, ironic lyrically, and weird generally, but rarely authentically sad.

Ryan Adams, on the other hand, is always sad about something, usually girls, break-up records being his forte.  Where does all of this sadness come from?  Have you ever spent any time in a small southern town like Ryan’s hometown of Jacksonville, North Carolina?  These are places where sadness reins, a fundamental part of the environment, hanging there inside the thick, hot, humid air.  These are also places drenched with quiet, where the slightest sounds feel amplified, an approaching car moving along a gravel road (Lucinda), the crickets and the bullfrogs calling from the trees in the dark, a lone acoustic guitar from off in the distance, cutting its way through the last rays of sunset.

This sad, slow, sparse feel of the rural south is the mood that is beautifully captured on Heartbreaker, with the primary tools of southern folk music, acoustic guitar and trampled-on voice.  The opening track, a misleading, fun-sounding, Elvis-like romp announces the subject, To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High), and stands along with the fight-riddled Shakedown on 9th Street (I was just gonna hit him but I’m gonna kill him now) as the two up tempo rockers on the album.  As terriffic as these two tunes are, the heart of the set sits in the sparse, country folk of songs like My Winding Wheel, Oh My Sweet Carolina, In My Time of Need and the underground hit of sacraficial-heartbreak-to-the-max, Come Pick Me Up.

This album stands up nicely against classics like Neil Young’s Harvest and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and it is on my list primarily because it I listen to it so much.  It’s permanently in my car, and I break it out regularly for long drives.  Adams followed it up with the almost as good, but maybe a little bit too long, Gold in 2001, beginning an incredibly prolific decade constituting 10 full-length studio releases.  I own and listen to them all, but Heartbreaker remains my favorite, an excellent starting point for anyone interested in Adams and folk-country-rock music at its best.

Notable(s):

My favorite track on the album is Oh My Sweet Carolina, a harmonious love song featuring Emmylou Harris on backing vocals.  Here’s a really super sad version of the song with just Ryan and his acoustic guitar.

During my Miles High Artists days I got the chance to spend some time with Ryan.  He is very close friends with Jesse Malin and produced Jesse’s 2003 release The Fine Art of Self Destruction, which is a great record in and of itself.  Ryan plays guitar on the record and other releases by Jesse including The Heat and Glitter in the Gutter.

Ryan’s band, Whiskeytown, was a peer to and competitor with Uncle Tupelo (Jeff Tweedy’s band prior to Wilco) and there exists and underlying rivalry between Ryan and Jeff for tops in the Alt-Country genre.  My favorite Whiskeytown album is Strangers Almanac (1997), with standout tracks Inn Town and Everything I Do.

Ryan’s solo discography from this past decade is massive, averaging about 1 release per year, and spanning a number of genres, including an all out rock album (titled Rock ‘n Roll).  Recently he has been sharing the bill with his touring band the Cardinals.  The double disc set Cold Roses, by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, shows off Ryan’s Jerry Garcia-esque guitar chops and Grateful Dead song writting influences, affects that have been working their way into the longer, generally terrific jams featured in his live shows.

Next we move away from the songwriters for a while and back to the bands, including couple of hipster transplants to the now very active alternative music scene in Brooklyn (and New York City)…

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April 30, 2010

Favorite Albums of the Decade (2000-2009) – #5 – Beck – Sea Change

5.  Beck – Sea Change – 2002 

 Breaking up with someone just isn’t fun(ny), especially if you’re still in love. 

So is the case with Mr. Post-Modern wise-ass, Beck, who apparently had a hard time conjuring up anything to laugh about in 2000, after ending a nearly 10 year relationship with designer Leigh Limon.  The result, Sea Change, might be the second best break-up record ever made (after, of  course, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, see my great break-up albums list below).  

Reportedly Beck wrote all twelve of the songs for Sea Change in one week after the break-up, songs that express an entirely different side of one of the great, but difficult to characterize, artists of the last two decades.  Go back and listen to Beck’s work of the 1990’s (namely: Mellow Gold, Mutations, Odelay and Midnite Vultures).  Beck is very much the vocal actor, taking on an accent and tone for the part he is playing, be it brit-hipster (The New Pollution), the country bumpkin (Cancelled Check) or, in its most extreme, the neo-Prince impersonation throughout much of Midnight Vultures, his preceeding, slamming 1999 party-satire record. 

Beck Hansen and Leigh Limon Photograph

Beck and Leigh Limon

Beck’s character in Sea Change might actually be himself, and so I imagine we’re experiencing his creative sound, the voice he starts with as he writes, and man is this character in a bad way. 

Sea Change is produced by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead:  Kid A, et al, Paul McCartney:  Chaos and Creation in the Backyard), and no doubt part of the album’s appeal is its sound.  Most tracks start off with acoustic guitar and sad vocal, front and center, with all sorts of ear candy atmospherics surrounding the singer, orchestral strings and effected guitars enter and exit as if tiptoeing into and out of the songs, creating mood and intensity, but never overwhelming the simplicity and sadness of the music.  Beck, with 3 chords and the truth, creates a hipster Hank Williams, visiting from the Lower East Side.  He is sitting in the corner of your living room, playing for therapy, and hoping for direction out of his funk, a new girl, a shoulder to cry on. 

Unlike Blood on the Tracks, where Dylan tells many of his stories of heartbreak through the voices of angry third-party characters, Beck’s break-up record is pure first person.  He is singing to us, but he desperately wants her to hear it, almost as if he imagines mailing her the record and having her come running back into his arms days later asking forgiveness. 

It looks like it might have taken heartbreak to create the best set of songs Beck has ever written.  Sea Change is an addicting monologue on the frustrations of lost love and sadness that I believe will stand the test of time as his true masterpiece. 

Notable(s): 

My favorite Sea Change track:  “Lost Cause” – check out video below. 

10 Great Break-up Albums 

  1. Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks – 1975
  2. Beck – Sea Change – 2002
  3. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours – 1977
  4. Bruce Springsteen – Tunnel of Love – 1987
  5. The Cure – Disintegration – 1989
  6. Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker – 2000
  7. Derek and the Dominos – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – 1970
  8. Lucinda Williams – Essence – 2001
  9. Kristin Hoffmann – Divided Heart – 2002
  10. Jason Darling – Monster (unreleased) – 2009

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