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Ryan Adams is such an ass. There he was, late last year, using the NME to pick a bizarre and petty fight with former pal Jack Whiteor, as Adams likes to call him, “little girl White”after the White Stripes leader complained about Adams’ revising the words to one of his tunes. Then this past summer, after meeting Britney Spears at a party, Adams took to the Internet to opine that America’s favorite pop tart is, more or less, a chunky cheerleader who reeks. And for a while there, to judge from the photographic evidence, Adams even seemed to be attempting a Graduate act with Marianne Faithfull.
It’s hard to know what Adams thinks he’s up to. Either he’s employed the world’s most perverse publicist or he’s got a serious self-destructive streak to go along with that famous case of workaholism. Though his pace has slowed somewhat, Adams was previously on a Guided by Voices-like tear, seemingly given to leaving the four-track running even when he was just singing random ditties in the shower. Indeed, last year’s closet-cleaning Demolition was originally conceived as a four-disc set before Mr. Productivity decided that maybe that would be a bit much, even for the likes of him.
Still, that sonically wide-ranging collection was a testament to the man’s deft way with a pop hookregardless of the musical idiom he happened to be working. As the former leader of No Depression coulda-beens Whiskeytown, Adams is known mainly as an alt-country artist. Down-home fellow travelers such as Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris have graced his albums, and Southern twang comes naturally to the North Carolina native. But the guy has always had the hard-bitten heart of a rocker, and if 2001’s Gold was a bit of a pop-oriented disappointment, top-shelf Demolition castoffs such as “Nuclear” and “Starting to Hurt” hinted that maybe Adams might have a decent alt-rock record in him, too.
Turns out he only had half of one. On his fourth solo release, the aptly titled Rock n Roll, Adams plays most of the instruments himself, piling on thick waves of distortion while drummer Johnny T bashes out the kind of raunchy beats that should have made the New York Dolls stars but instead set KISS up for life. Nary a song collected here includes a pedal-steel lick, let alone a banjo solo. Instead, the best tracks evince a fascination with last year’s rock model: neo-garage. The worst ones sound like U2.
I kid you not. “Boys,” “She’s Lost Total Control,” and “So Alive” are stomping, stadium-ready anthems complete with spiraling guitar lines, yearning lyrics, and even a few messianic overtones: “Today I watched the boats/Moving through the harbor/Walking on water.” Problem is, they’re all minus the gift for grand gesture that lets a Grade A ham like Bono get away with murder. Adams, by contrast, is an understudy, and his stabs at Unforgettable Fire- and Joshua Tree-style theatrics are strictly high-school-drama-club material. Not even current love interest Parker Poseycredited here as the disc’s “exe’cute’tive producer,” ughis likely to be impressed. The way Adams cleverly titles the album’s least rock ‘n’ roll tune, uh, “Rock n Roll” probably won’t help, either.
Better by far are less grandiose statements, such as the disc-opening “This Is It” and the sweetly trash-talking “Wish You Were Here.” The former tune puns (to Adams’ advantage, naturally) on the title of his buddies the Strokes’ debut disc and traffics in that outfit’s preference for stripped-down, rhythm-oriented rock ‘n’ roll; the latter name-checks Pink Floyd but instead apes vintage-era Replacements. Even if Adams comes across as a little too self-unaware when he sings, “Let me sing a song for you/That’s never been sung before,” he does indeed rock with some real conviction in both cases. The same goes for “Shallow,” an instantly memorable tune that marries a chunka-chunka verse section stolen from the Georgia Satellites to a jangling chorus that’s pure radio-pop bliss. And oh, the self-obsessed “1974” pulls off a fair enough AC/DC-White Stripes hybridization, if you really wanna know.
For my money, the rock tunes on Demolition showcase Adams’ genre-bending talent to far better effect. But give the guy credit where it’s due: What with his uncouth media-whore antics and half-baked songwriting, Adams could have done worse than decide to leave the alt-country movement the hell alone. In fact, it’s hard not to see it as a winning proposition for all concerned. Good riddance.
Despite his association with the alt-country artist-fartists in Nashville’s Lambchop, Paul Burch doesn’t seem to have a pretentious bone in his body. On his fifth solo disc, Fool for Love, the singer-guitarist comes on all humble and understated, as if he thinks that the deftly played pedal steel that gooses a fair number of the album’s tunes isn’t quite pretty enoughor, perhaps, that his reedy warble is too thin to get the job done.
Not to worryneither is the case. Album-opener “Lovesick Blues Boy” is a country-pop charmer, a clip-clopping character sketch about a ne’er-do-well who was “brought up to be let down.” The disc’s best tune, “Bad Girl She Used to Be,” follows, and it’s the perfect foil: a hazy, tube-amplified ode to the redemptive powers of love and the pleasures of putting away childish things. Built on crafty chord changes that owe as much to the Brill Building aesthetes as the Grand Ole Opry, the track is suitably and satisfyingly sophisticatednot to mention positively ripe for the picking by a twangy diva such as Neko Case or Kelly Hogan, either of whom could give the tune a powerhouse first-person reading with just a little lyrical revision. The song might even revive Linda Ronstadt’s moribund career if she were clever enough to record it.
The rest of the disc, it’s true, has a hard time competing with its opening salvos, but even the relative toss-offs here are keepers. “Life of a Fool,” for example, glides on a bare-bones and ramshackle arrangement powered mainly by Dennis Crouch’s upright bass plucking and Burch’s own
shuffling rhythm guitar. With its echoey, low-rent ambience and studied phrasing, the track signifies in part as a Hank Williams reproduction, albeit one the man himself would be proud to claim. Elsewhere, “Deserted Love,” a sexy swirl of pulsating tremolo and ringing acoustic guitar, finds Burch country-rockin’ the mike like a pleasantly buzzed Ron Sexsmith.
The main thing Burch has in common with those real-deal luminaries is a refined but casually confident grasp of melody. Like Sexsmith, especially, Burch inhabits his songs, lighting them up from the inside with a voice that’s vaguely off-putting at first but eventually reveals itself as supple, sly, and subtle. Those qualities put about a million miles of aesthetic distance between Burch and erstwhile cowpoke Adams, of course. And the pair diverge in other significant ways, too: Though both these ambitious gentlemen pack plenty of aural punch into their respective new discs, it’s a fairly safe bet that only one of ’em is likely to get Jack White to guest on his next album. CP