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Whippet Out – Alejandro Escovedo, Glasgow Arches

Despatches from the Americana Festival; Howlin’ Whippet checks in.

He’s not a household name by any means, but Texan Alejandro Escovedo should be. He has enough previous to fuel dark, layered stories and wild places in which his world is built.

As guitarist with The Nuns he opened for the Sex Pistols at their last ever show at The Winterland, San Fransisco. He lived in the Chelsea Hotel, home of Sid and Nancy, and was present the fateful night that she met her end.

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From the vault – Whiskeytown

Ryan Adams has been on the road this week and is playing Whiskeytown songs for the first time in his solo career. Still, you can’t beat the real thing, so here’s a very rare performance from 1997 of the classic ’16 Days’.

Big Star in the Sky – Alex Chilton Dies

Legendary songwriter Alex Chilton has died in New Orleans. He was 59.

The Big Star founder had suffered from heart problems recently and complained of feeling ill earlier this week. Unfortunately, his condition deteriorated and he passed away in hospital on the 17th March.

Big Star’s commercial success was inexplicably minimal, but their influence was enormous. Chilton started his music career as a clean-cut member of pop act Box Tops before founding Big Star and releasing the critically-acclaimed albums #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers. That trio have a strong claim as being the finest debut run from any band, ever.
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The Friday 5 – Check shirts and pointy boots:5 Great alt.country bands

The mighty Uncle Tupelo

Well, my friends, if it hasn’t gone and happened again; yes, Friday has rolled around once more. It’s a time for the working man to put down his tools, to wipe the sweat from his brow and to relax. Well, traditionally anyway, what it generally means in these modern times is productivity drops to the floor, you decide that you’ll do it on Monday and you surf until 5 o’clock. Be honest. That’s why you are reading this. No wonder this country is in a mess. You make me sick.

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Renaissance Men – Ryan Adams and Musicians with Literary Pretensions

Ryan Adams has in the past appeared to be a young man with a very short attention span, given his prolific release schedule over the last decade or so. But it seems that he has finally grown bored of an endless release cycle, even incorporating the many different genres he has recorded in. In fact, music may well not have been his first love, and it won’t be his last (no, not the music of the future. Or even the music of the past.) “I always, always dreamed of being an author,” he said. “I never dreamed of being in a rock band, but the possibility of publishing a book – man, that was a serious dream of mine.” In January, Adams announced via his blog that he was taking a “step back” from the “music situation”. One of the reasons cited was an inner-ear problem that was causing him increasing amounts of distress; the other was to spend time furthering his literary ambitions (Or, as he blogged: “I LOVE writing – yay!”).

At 34, and after an abundance of solo records, next month Adams publishes Infinity Blues, a collection of free verse he describes as “reality coated by dreams”, with a novel and another volume of poetry, Hello Sunshine, in the pipeline. Bet you can’t wait for that, eh?

He enters a field populated by a fairly select band of musicians, most notably Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Leonard Cohen and Billy Bragg, who have written and published works of serious literary intent, aspiring beyond music criticism, memoir or autobiography. Similarly, Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin is probably better known for his novels than he is for his work with the Americana. And for some of the above, it seemed a natural progression. Bragg’s polemic on English history, Earle’s tales of low-lives and junkies, Cave’s deranged Western…..makes sense. But Ryan Adams?

The suspicion grows around the former Whiskeytown man that he’s merely a dilettante, never really settling down into one natural progression. Musically, he’s wandered between styles, always trying to get away from what he excels in (alt.country) and trying to be what he clearly isn’t (Springsteenesque Rock God.) It’s all very laudable, but this strikes ELM as just another variation on that theme. Just because he LOVES writing doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to be much cop at it.

One to wait and see then.

The Back Catalogue Report #1 – Ryan Adams

One of the founding tenets of ELM was that there is simply so much music about that it’s hard to know where to begin. That’s especially true when you are dealing with a prolific artist, and they don’t come much more productive than Ryan Adams. He’s been the golden boy of a modern dawn of alt.country, the brilliantly versatile curator of classic Americana and the formless, drug-addled waste-of-space of alternative rock. With an album out approximately every 20 minutes, he’s never been boring. In the first of a semi-regular series, we rate Adams back catalogue and have a look at his new effort ‘Cardinology’.

WHISKEYTOWN

Strangers Almanac – 1997 debut as a member of Whiskeytown was a perfectly executed statement of intent from the then 22 year old. Marrying dustbowl country and Replacements style rock, Adams songwriting was incredibly mature and focused. Probably the definitive alt.country statement along with Uncle Tupelo’s debut, it comprises 13 almost-perfect songs, incorporating country, blues, rock and even soul. Stand-out tracks are the quicksilver ‘Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart’ and the mournful ‘Houses On The Hill’, an elegiac triumph full of poise, dignity and regret. Unspeakably good. *****

Faithless Street – The follow-up lacked the grandeur of its predecessor, but is certainly not a contender for second album syndrome status. Adams songwriting is more raucous but also more prosaic, and it lacks an absolute classic to elevate it above ‘decent’. ‘Midway Park’ and ‘Too Drunk To Dream’ are the highlights in an album which consolidated their reputation even if it failed to enhance it. ***

Pneumonia – A posthumous release, the end of the band is reflected upon more with stoic sadness than bitter regret. Adams songwriting is strong, and the band respond with a heartfelt album which has echoes of The Replacements swansong ‘All Shook Down’. ‘Don’t Wanna Know Why’ is one of the great anti-love songs and ‘Jacksonville Skyline’, like all his best lyrics, is as evocative and heartfelt as a Walt Whitman poem. A fitting end to one of America’s truly great bands. ****

SOLO

Heartbreaker – He may well have left Whiskeytown as a cocksure rock-star-in-waiting, but what a stunning message he delivered with this. Simply put, it gives ‘Almanac’ a run for its money. from the opening spoken word discussion about Morrissey segueing straight into ‘To Be Young’ – ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ for the 21st century – we are treated to songwriting that is the equal of anything produced this century. ‘Come Pick Me Up’ is a tremendously powerful whisky soaked plea, ‘Winding Wheel’ cuts through your heartstrings like a Stanley Knife and ‘A.M.Y.’ is a strange little thing which reveals itself in stages. Adams maintains he could write ‘another Heartbreaker again tomorrow’ if he wanted to. He couldn’t. *****

Gold – How to follow up a classic? By raiding the Great American Songbook for inspiration and becoming a jukebox of all that’s fantastic about American Music. Dylan, Springsteen, Byrds, Band…all referenced and all done so with love and care. from commercial opener ‘New York’ to the sublime ‘Answering Bell’ to the gritty ‘Rescue Blues’, it runs the gamut of styles and simply doesn’t have a bad track on it. Best of all is the emotional holocaust of ‘La Cienga Smiled’, a song lacking in histrionics but packing an almighty emotional punch regardless. *****

Demolition – An odds and sods compilation, it still contains three of his finest songs in the wondrous ‘Nuclear’ – possibly his best single – ‘Hallelujah’ (not the Cohen song) and ‘Starting To Hurt’. Special mention to the wonderfully titles ‘Tennessee Sucks In The Summer’. Like all round-up albums, not essential, but definitely worth checking out. ***

Rock N’ Roll – Ah, fuck. Where it all goes wrong, and really, really badly wrong. Ditching the warm Americana for a plodding imitation of Springsteen-playing-Suicide No York crap, the songwriting sounds half-arsed, the lyrics raggedy and it’s impossible to escape the notion that what you are listening to is a mind unspooling in the studio. ‘Burning Photographs’ is a great song, that apart, it’s slim pickings. In mitigation, this album was written and recorded in four weeks after his label bizarrely declined to release ‘Love Is Hell’. Sadly, it sounds like it. **

Love Is Hell – Why record companies are scum. Adams delivered this to Lost highway, they decided it wasn’t commercial enough and he went on to record the disaster chronicled above. In a true act of record company cuntery, they then DID release LIH (initially as two EP’s) after RNR’s dismal reviews and sales. And what do you know, it’s superb. Rocking out to songs such as the title track and the U2-but-good- rocker ‘The House Is Not For Sale’ before segueing effortlessly into folk-rock with ‘English Girls Approximately’ (about Beth Orton’ and then the desolate beauty of the haunting ‘Shadowlands’, it’s a triumph of stylistic songwriting. Also spawned an unlikely hit with a cover of Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ which breathes new life into a karaoke classic. Record companies are scum. ****

Cold Roses – Backed by band the Cardinals, Adams delivers a double set which, like all double sets, would have made a terrific single album. ‘Let It Ride’ is a modern ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’,’ Friends’ is as delicate as a daisy chain in the hands of an errant child and ‘I Wanna See You Tonight’ a belting drinking song. Throw in the stomp of ‘Beautiful Sorta’ and you’ve got a strong set. ***1/2

Jacksonville City – A country album. Not an alt.country album, not an Americana Album, but a gutsy, howling country album. And it’s pretty decent. Perhaps slightly stylised – could do with less yelping – but a fine set of tunes and proof he was recovering his mojo. ***

29 – The third album he released in 2005, it’s a marmite album. Some really lovely songs abound – ‘Strawberry Wine’ being the pick of them – but the constant introspection and lack of light and shade make it a difficult album to actually enjoy. Still, a certain type of individual will find solace in the anguish, but the unremitting misery and musical similarities make it hard going for everyone else. ***

Easy Tiger – Two years later a new, sober and serious Adams appeared and delivered his strongest set since LIH. The album’s tone is wistful without being melancholy, like coming out of a bad spell of anxiety and focusing on the positive. ‘Two’ is him at his finest, while ‘Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.’ will make a statue cry. Goofy country romp ‘Pearls On A String’ gave us a glimpse of a long-buried sense of humour. ****

Cardinology – The new release is a very strong, very professional workout with The Cardinals, returning to the rockier sound of LIH’s more muscular moments. The two strongest tracks are ‘I’d Fix It’ and ‘Magick’, both foot-on-the-monitor rockers with heart. that said, the set does suffer from a uniformity and certainly, is more workmanlike than his truly finest work. Still, he’s clean and sober, so is it fair to scream for the incredible music he made while fucked up? ***

So hopefully some help for those curious about his work and some talking points for some old fans. What is clear, however, that in 11 years, he has put together one hell of a body of work. While he remains frustrating, inconsistent and simply awkward, the world would be a poorer place without him.

Whiskeytown – ‘Strangers Almanac’ Deluxe Edition Review

There’s been a real rash of these ‘deluxe’ editions recently. The more cynical amongst us may wonder if this is due to the downturn in sales of new CD’s. After all, these lavish packages are aimed at people who already own the album and will be willing to shell out another £15 for a few extra tracks and a storybook insert detailing the genesis of the music. Collectors and completeists in other words, and it’s so easy to bang out a new copy of an album that the label has already released once before.

But judging this album on music alone, you really should buy it if you don’t already own it. Whiskeytown’s magnificent 1997 debut deservedly stands aside Uncle Tupelo’s debut and Wilco’s ‘Summerteeth’ as one of the most influential works in the alt.country cannon. Ryan Adams songwriting throughout is simply matchless, backed by a band at the top of their game. Looking back, it is surprising it took Adams another four years to move into mainstream consciousness with ‘Gold’. Quite honestly, for a 22 year old to write songs with such stunning emotional depth and resonance beggars belief. Some would say he’s never been as good as this again. I’d hold up his solo debut as ‘Heartbreaker’ as proof he has – but it’s a close thing.

Kicking off with the haunting acoustic country of ‘Inn Town’, the records great strength is his versatility. ‘Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart’ is a gorgeous sasparilla stomp, while ‘Yesterday’s News’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Pleased to Meet Me’ by the Replacements. ’16 Days’ is a sanguine country-soul number which would make a great cover for any aspiring soul diva. ‘Dancing With the Woman at the Bar’ is as good as it’s title, and ‘Not Home Anymore’ is fitting closer. But the albums centrepiece is the astonishing ‘Houses on the Hill’, a dust-and-dirt ballad with incredibly touching lyrics covering romance, war, mortality and loss in two-and-a-half exceptional minutes. If Adams had never written another song he would have left a strong case to be considered a genius with this number. That it became a staple of country-covers bands is a testament to the songs timeless and universal appeal.

Simply put, it’s a devestatingly good album, which, fine wine-style, has got better with time.

As for the extras…well, I know I always say this, but they are a disapointment. A few reasons, the overriding and always pertinent main one being that, as usual, the unreleased songs were unrelaesed for a very good reason. There are the songs from the infamous Baseball Park Sessions, but these are mere sketches of what would go on to make the bones of the album proper. And, even more infuriatingly, they have already been released as bonus tracks on an earlier issue of Whiskeytown’s second album ‘Faithless Street’.

So, if you own this already, I wouldn’t bother. If you don’t, I cannot recommend an album more strongly. Just ask yourself one question – Are you ready to be heartbroken? If so, you’ll never find heartache more appealing.