May 10, 2005

Everything comes up Roses on Ryan Adams's latest

He's an arrogant asshole. He's a tortured genius. He's past his prime, still living off of his early critical success. He's maturing into one of the most prolific singer/songwriters of his generation.

He's Ryan Adams, and he's most, if not all of the above.

He also has three albums planned for release this year (Jacksonville City Lights and 29 should be out in late summer or early fall), the first of which is a long-awaited return to country-rock.

To some, Cold Roses might seem like the true follow-up to Ryan Adams's solo debut, Heartbreaker. It's full of lap steel guitar and lyrical references to the Delta Queen and his home state of North Carolina (and the obligatory Tennessee). But where Heartbreaker projects an often rollicking, youthful sound, Cold Roses brings the listener closer to a more relaxed Ryan Adams—it sounds like Whiskeytown reformed and put out a happier, full-band country version of Love is Hell.

The two-disc album opens with "Magnolia Mountain," one of two songs from Cold Roses that Adams previewed in his November show at Mandel Hall. A gentle acoustic guitar intro segues into a lazy but layered sound provided by his excellent backing band, the Cardinals. Next up is "Sweet Illusions," which introduces a theme not too unfamiliar in Adams's back catalogue: lost love. But despite plenty of references to love and loneliness (some song titles include "When Will You Come Back Home?" and "How Do You Keep Love Alive?"), the sounds on the album are actually quite vibrant, thanks mostly to the backing band.

Ryan's show (with the Cardinals) at Mandel Hall was quite disorienting and, at times, frustrating (Toby Keith, anyone?) But between his incoherent banter, the Cardinals gave life to Ryan's songs with masterful instrumentation and great attention to dynamics. On Cold Roses, the Cardinals shine even brighter.

The entire band receives writing credit for each song, which perhaps alleviated some of the pressure on Adams and allowed for the relaxed quality of this album. An easygoing feeling resonates in each song that, clichéd as it sounds, conjures up images of sitting on a porch in the backwoods of Tennessee and watching the sun go down. The layered sound provided by the Cardinals—with hazy slide guitars, twangy lead guitar licks, and female backing vocals—frequently provides Adams with a lush backdrop. Often times, Adams's voice gets to weave in and out of the Cardinals' music as if it were a physical instrument.

There are a few rockers here, and they add depth to the consistent vibe of the album. On "Beautiful Sorta," (the second Cold Roses song that Ryan and the Cardinals previewed at the U of C show) Ryan begins with a Johnny Thunders reference, saying, "When I say ‘L-U-V,' you better believe me L-U-V. Gimme a beer!" then gives a four-count before hard-charging electric guitars kick the song off. Lead single "Let It Ride" moves at a brisk pace with plenty of lap steel sprinkled throughout.

The fluidity of the Cardinals' playing exposes an uncommon weakness for a Ryan Adams album: his voice. Cold Roses finds Adams using his falsetto more than on any other album. Sometimes this is effective, but often it's a bit awkward to listen to. The first three minutes of "Meadowlake Street" are pretty whiny and repetitive (the song gets somewhat bailed out by the addition of more instruments). The song unwinds at the end when Adams's flat falsetto is accentuated by the backing vocals (sung by Ryan as well), which seem to hit every note but the right one.

Perhaps the fragility of his falsetto or the occasional flat note was done on purpose, to further amplify the laid-back, easygoing sound of the album. But there are a few cringe-worthy moments that aren't easy to immediately to get over.

But overall, this two-disc, 18-song album is Adams's most cohesive album to date. And, despite being 76 minutes long, Cold Roses is easy to listen to in its entirety in a single sit-down. Any mild deviation into a slower, more somber song or a faster, more rollicking song still fits perfectly into the overall relaxed and encompassing southern-fried vibe. Ryan Adams might be an arrogant asshole churning out albums faster than he should, but Cold Roses is a damn nice way to signal the coming of a slow, summer sunset.