Power Plop: An invocation of Cheap Trick is nice, but Adams needs better songs.

It’s been a rocky relationship for fans of Ryan Adams. You couldn’t blame the alt-country set for feeling betrayed when the former Whiskeytown frontman took a train wreck of a star turn in the early part of the last decade. You also couldn’t blame the crowd that latched on during Adams’ Rock N Roll, Gap-commercial days, who must have felt similarly puzzled by his dark-night-of-the-soul trilogy of country-tinged albums in 2005. If you’ve stuck with him this long, then you know Adams will continue to confound expectations. Now, only a year after he appeared to swear off music for good, he continues the upset streak with III/IV, his second release of 2010. He recorded the album in 2007 with his Cardinals crew (having swapped guitarist/Strokes svengali JP Bowersock for a notably tamer Neal Casal), and it’s a sequel of sorts to 2005’s gorgeous, Garcia-aping Cold Roses. III/IV is a lighter affair, revelling in the reverb-heavy power-pop of Cheap Trick and The Cars. (Billed as a “double-album concept rock opera about the ’80s, ninjas, cigarettes, sex, and pizza,” American Beauty II this ain’t.) While much of the record has been locked in the vaults, a few tracks might be familiar to diehards: “Breakdown Into the Resolve” appeared live at a few shows in 2007; “Gracie” was an online freebie in 2006; “Sewers at the Bottom of the Wishing Well” comes from the unreleased Elizabethtown sessions; “Ultraviolet Light” appeared on the Warren Peace sessions; and so on. Adams nerds will tell you, though, that none of those songs are up there with the singer’s strongest unreleased stuff; considering what the guy has packed away, many of the tracks on III/IV seem like odd choices. Still, while often hammy in the Bono/Rivers Cuomo vein, III/IV has its charms: “Star Wars” has some playful call-and-response backing vocals; “No” is a four-on-the-floor ballad with some trademark Adams guitar touches; there’s plenty of big, classic-rock riffage throughout the record, if that’s your thing. The interplay between Adams, Casal, and pedal-steel juggernaut Jon Graboff might have been more affecting in a country-rock context, but makes for some great moments here. And despite Adams’ shallow approach to songwriting this time around, the Cardinals demonstrate again that they’re one hell of a backing band, even if they can’t completely contain Adams’ overindulgences. But let’s take a step back: III/IV, for all its flaws, is a fun record that captures Adams’ playful side on tape (officially) for the first time. Maybe, like the majority of his troubled career, the record is best not taken too seriously. Combined with the recently released Orion, his fully-realized “sci-fi metal concept record,” III/IV offers evidence that Adams is way past caring about his status as an alt-country poster boy, choosing to instead release whatever the fuck he feels like and hoping his fans go with it. Which is fine, though I’m sure listeners—no matter which Ryan Adams incarnation they feel loyal to—would prefer he just start writing better songs.