Monday, June 16, 2008

Time Capsule 2003: Rock Is Hell

“Time Capsules” is our way of putting some of our favorite albums from particular years into a... little, um, time capsule so music fans can read our reviews of notable releases from various years. We were going to take the actual CD's and launch them into space in real time capsules, or bury them in the ground so future generations and/or aliens could be sure to find the best CD's preserved. But that seemed a bit pricey and foolish. Plus, aliens (and/or future generations) aren't likely to go digging thru the ground looking for stuff, they'll probably just poke around on the internet. Let's hope they find this site sooner than later. The following review was written in 2003:

For those of you just joining Ryan Adams' career, let me bring you up to speed. Hopefully the longtime faithful fans will forgive me while I try to quickly put him and his music into a neat little box.

Of course that will be difficult. As a young teenager in North Carolina, Adams traded in his skateboard for a guitar and started playing in punk bands. He would eventually migrate from his punk rock roots and form Whiskeytown, the critically acclaimed but commercially unsung band at the forefront of the alt-country movement of the mid-to-late 1990's.

His first solo release, 1999's Heartbreaker, was received as a stunning and influential debut. One critic called it "the greatest break-up album since Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks." Elton John called Heartbreaker the most inspiring record he'd heard in decades, and even went so far as dedicating his next album to Ryan Adams for "making me want to do better."

That led to a major label record deal with Universal's Lost Highway and a reputation as a talented and prolific young songwriter. (His live shows and New York City lifestyle also brought on being labeled as a self-indulgent brat who enjoyed the excesses of alcohol and drugs.)

With 2001's Gold, he had a minor hit with "New York, New York," along with a simple but eerie video shot less than a week before the September 11 attacks featuring Adams strumming and singing the tune with the towers still visible in the background.

He was writing and recording at a pace way ahead of the music industry standard of only releasing albums every couple of years. He allegedly recorded four albums' worth of material within a year after releasing Gold. Some of the songs were released in 2002 on Demolition, which was essentially an uneven sampling of some of his many demos. While Demolition has its flaws, it just underlined the fact that this guy's trash contained lots of treasure.

So Adams put together a new album he was proud of, Love Is Hell. Well, his label Lost Highway rejected it. They said it was too dark. With Adams' history for writing gut-wrenching tales of heartache, what did they expect? Were they hoping for bubble gum dance pop?

When this sort of thing happens, the label is almost always missing the boat. See (or hear) Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Aimee Man's Bachelor No. 2 for proof.

In a recent interview with the London Times, Adams called the tunes on Love Is Hell "death threats to myself." He went on to explain:

"It's a very damaged, very excessive record, the sound of someone in trouble and not dealing with it and going out of their head. Something like Neil Young's Tonight's The Night."

After the rejection, a frustrated Adams says, "I was so angry, I quit. I thought I'd reached the most honest I could be about my feelings on Love Is Hell. It was totally naked. And it was rejected. I put my guitars away and said to hell with it."

Well, Adams eventually got his guitars back out again. The result is Rock N Roll, the "official" new album. It's upbeat, guitar-driven material with a modern retro feel, if that's possible. The label is apparently happy, and, perhaps in a compromise with Adams, they're releasing Love Is Hell as two EP's. Part 1 was released simultaneously with Rock N Roll, with Part 2 following a month later. Of course, the label will put all its marketing and promotion behind Rock N Roll, while not even sending advance copies of Love Is Hell to the media.

What a shame. While it's too early to deem Love Is Hell a masterpiece, it is a finely-crafted and well-produced collection of songs; a deep and introspective journey. Sure, it's dark. This ain't a party record, that's for sure. But it offers a glimpse of the depth and quality that everyone suspected this singer-songwriter to be capable of.

Rock N Roll is the party record. It sounds like Adams approached this album with an attitude of, "You want some upbeat material to capitalize on the any-retro-guitar-band-as-savior-of-rock trend? Here you go..."

It's almost like he's showing off. Here's a guy who, with Love Is Hell, proves he can write gloomy alternative pop good enough to stand next to the likes of Radiohead or dare-I-say Coldplay. When the label rejects it, he turns around and gives them a trendy rock record full of more hooks than a bait shop. It seems the only thing he can't do is sound like Dr. Dre or look like Britney Spears.

If Love Is Hell is a beautifully sad painting, Rock N Roll is a cartoon. In other words, Rock N Roll is candy to Love Is Hell's filet mignon. They both taste good, but they're very different. One might break your heart while the other will rot your teeth.

The irony here is that, stripped down to the core, the songs on these records aren't that different. They sound drastically different, but the lyrics on Rock N Roll still have dark moments sprinkled amid the light-hearted tongue-in-cheek vibe. He just dressed them up like an 80's cover band being driven around by Morrissey with the Strokes Is This It CD on repeat. One thing both albums have in common is Adams' great voice. Sometimes he sounds as smooth and syrupy as a country crooner, and other times he's as raspy as an ashtray shared by Kurt Cobain and Paul Westerberg.

In the end, Love Is Hell is a truly great album and Rock N Roll really isn't. It's good, but I think time will be much kinder to Love Is Hell. (LIH is being re-issued on one disc. Too bad the label couldn't have just done that from the beginning and promoted it.)

Adams advises, "If you want to have fun, go buy Rock N Roll. If you want to hear something extreme that's coming from a really interesting place, and is all about suicide and ghosts and flirting with death, then go buy Love Is Hell."


As always (if possible), don’t buy Love Is Hell or Rock N Roll at BestBuy, Target or on Amazon. Support your local independent record store (while it still exists) and buy from them.

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