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Ryan Adams - Gold Print E-mail
Tuesday, 18 November 2003

Ryan Adams

format: DVD-Audio
label: Lost Highway
release year: 2003
performance: 2
sound 6
reviewed by: Joe Hageman

Image “Wait a minute – this isn’t the same guy who sang “Summer of ’69.” No, unfortunately, it’s not. That’s Bryan Adams with a B. This is Ryan, and as I hear it, he hates being called Bryan Adams as one fan at a concert who shouted out his request to hear Bryan Adams’ ode to yesteryear quickly realized. As widely reported on the Internet, Ryan ordered the lights turned up, pulled out $28 (he obviously didn’t factor in Ticket Master’s “convenience fee”) to refund the guy his money and ordered him to leave, saying he wouldn’t play another note until the audience member vacated the premises. The venue’s GM grabbed the guy on his way out the door and apologized, allowing him to stay. Oh, yeah – the guy kept the $28 bucks. Too bad, Ryan could have used that money for singing lessons.

That’s right, I said it. This guy can’t sing worth a lick, nor can he seem to pick a vocal styling and stick to it. On track 9, “SYLVIA PLATH” (his capitalization, not mine), he sounds like Adam Sandler, except not funny. By Track 11, he’s switched to his impersonation of Robert Plant, except he doesn’t rock, he whines. Speaking of Sylvia Plath, Adams sings, “While she was swimming away, she'd be winking at me. Telling me it would all be okay.” Would that be before or after she stuck her head in an oven? Maybe he thinks that by singing about a celebrated, depressed American poet, he’ll be viewed as the same. Not likely. This song is so far from poetry that it is comical. The lyrics don’t even follow the cadence of the instrumentals – they simply don’t line up or sound like they belong together. It sounds like he lifted the instrumentals from a B Side Sarah McLachlan song and added some truly awful lyrics. I’m sorry, but this is truly one of the lamest excuses for a song I’ve ever heard.

Adams also seems to be suffering from a geographical identity crisis. The North Carolina native certainly sounds the part of a native Manhattanite in the opening track “New York, New York,” where he deftly mentions Avenue A and B in Alphabet City and properly pronounces (for a New Yorker, anyway) Houston Street “house-ton”. But the song about lost love sounds contrived. The upside-down American flag as his backdrop on the album’s cover, not to mention the one on the back cover seems a desperate attempt to play into the country’s heightened sense of patriotism at the time this album was originally released. Now, I’m certainly not calling into question Mr. Adams’ patriotism or suggesting he’s trying to profit off of a terrible tragedy, but all this patriotic imagery, along with the music video that accompanies “New York, New York,” where the lead into the video is a proclamation that the video was shot on September 7th, 2001 and then cuts to Ryan Adams playing guitar and singing with the still intact Twin Towers providing the backdrop, is a strange coincidence that I’m having trouble reconciling.

More Manhattan references dot the album’s lyrics, but Adams doesn’t ignore the Left Coast when he sings “La Cienega Just Smiled” and “Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd.” Obviously, he didn’t get the memo about East Coast vs. West Coast. Either that or he’s simply trying to remain neutral so someone doesn’t pop a cap in his ass.

As for the audio mix, I was surprised and somewhat dismayed at first to learn that the surround mix is only mixed into four channels – the front left and right and the rear left and right. Given the ability to easily mix this into all 5.1 channels, I didn’t understand why the engineer would choose one less channel than what’s available with Dolby Pro Logic. But in listening to the album, I actually appreciated the subtlety of the mix – it wasn’t too over the top with vocals mixed into the surrounds or an artificial sense of acoustical space. The surrounds provide just enough ambiance to make the mix interesting and although I thought the vocals sounded a bit hollow, they weren’t “beamy” like a lot of vocals that are mixed into the center channel tend to sound.

One thing I found particularly odd, though, with the mix was the decision to mix the disc’s videos in Dolby Digital stereo only. I would have thought for sure that adding video to the mix would have prompted the engineers to bump up to a full 5.1 surround sound, but I guess not. One other thing that is more a function of the format than this particular disc – look out for video burn-in if you have a plasma display. The fixed image of the song titles along with an image of Ryan lying on a bed with some woman remains on throughout the duration of the album. If you ask me, upon selecting a track, the image should fade to black with only a rotating listing of the artist, album and song title – similar to what DirecTV does with their music channels.

It seems to me that Ryan Adams is stuck somewhere between John Mayer and Jason Mraz, except he doesn’t have their vocal or writing talents, not to mention the undeniable blues guitar chops of Mayer, nor the affable if not downright goofy charm of Mraz. Most of the album sounds like a second rate impersonation of John (Cougar) Mellencamp.

In doing my due diligence research on Mr. Adams, I came across a website that listed Wilco as a similar artist to Ryan Adams. I gotta be honest, I don’t get them either. I tried, I really did, but alas, I just don’t get it. So, if you “get” Wilco, maybe you’ll really like Ryan Adams, but to me, he sounds just as whiny and depressed as the much-lauded Wilco. May I suggest picking up the debut album Trace from real “alt-country” bluegrass band Son Volt, which, funnily enough, is headed by Jay Farrar who used to be in a band called Uncle Tupelo with Jeff Tweedy who left to start Wilco. Then again, Wilco’s star is steadily rising while Son Volt’s future is up in the air right now, thus proving what the hell do I know anyway?

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