Sunday, January 13, 2008

George's favorite albums, #5: Stranger's Almanac

I'm going to post the last 5 of my ongoing (and I do mean ongoing--over a year now due to writer laziness) list of favorite albums on this blog as well as my myspace blog. I'll post the previous 45 later.


Album: Stranger's Almanac
Artist: Whiskeytown
Released: 1997 (Outpost)
Favorite Songs: 16 Days, Avenues, Not Home Anymore

This is an album that was bequeathed unto me by a friend; a friend's family actually. I'd recently taken a liking to Ryan Adams and his music, and naturally that lead to an interest into his former band Whiskeytown. My friend mentioned that his family owned Stranger's Almanac, and that I'd likely enjoy it. So I borrowed it from him in the summer of 2004 and listened to it ad nauseam for months. This was an album that would be the soundtrack to a very transitional time in my life; the end of my first major relationship, my first move into an apartment, and the beginning of the best relationship I've ever had. So I suppose I've invested a lot emotionally into this album, and every listen harkens memories of a certain time in my life, a time that suffice to say was less complex but more tumultuous in a sense.

The music is almost flawless. The songwriting, from "Inn Town" to "Not Home Anymore," is possibly Adams' best example of his alt.country prowess. And his voice has never sounded better. I've recently come to the realization that I enjoy Whiskeytown on the whole better than I do Ryan Adams as a solo artist. A large part of this is due to their immense and high quality back catalogue; but perhaps even a larger part is due to this gem of an album.

Halfway between honey-sweet alt.country and pure 90s rock, Stranger's Almanac is accessible, semi-polished, but just as pure as anything you'd hear out of Americana as a genre. The opener, "Inn Town," may be the best kick-off to any Adams related album outside of "Magnolia Mountain." The humble guitar riffs and relaxed harmonies deliver the message of accepted hopelessness, the confinement from which a smalltown denizen with greater ambitions suffers.

"Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" keeps the tradition of lengthy country titles and straightforward lyrics, with a cameo by Alejandro Escovedo. Ultimately it stands as one of the band's most popular songs, and one of the most hearty doses of you-done-me-wrong country music that Whiskeytown has to offer.

I'm a huge fan of spiteful lyrics wrapped in an optimistic melody. "Yesterday's News" is a perfect example of this sort of tune. The lyrics are piercing and dismissive: "If it was nothing/It's cause nothing's what you did," and the guitar chords crunch nicely behind a noodly lead and some truly rockin' skinsmanship.

If Whiskeytown had a hit, "16 Days" was it. An infectious guitar progression, and the lyrical hook of "Ghost has got me runnin', away from you" make for an undeniable appeal. Then comes to soulful "Everything I Do", a song that Ryan had some balls to write, considering Bryan's homonymous tune. Perhaps the saddest country song he's written, "Houses on the Hill" is the tragic narrative of the discovery of wartime letters from a soldier, soon to be KIA. The song seems to unfold under a vast, lonely night sky, due in no small part to the lyrical refrain of "There were stars in the sky."

At this point, the album reorients itself and deviates from the more straight-forward Americana pop that had thus far populated the disc, and assumes a much more serious, focused style. I've never seen the LP, but I'd assume this is where the second side would begin. Starting with "Turn Around" and ending with the powerful "Not Home Anymore", the songs therein are laced with angst, sorrow, spite, self-deprecation...all of which would likely be entries in a stranger's almanac.

"Turn Around" is an unsettling plea, a turbulent, worried song that stand as one of Ryan's more desperate laments. Its driving rhythm and jangly, minor chords stir up the first indications of an more emotional turn. This empties into "Dancing With the Women At The Bar", one of Whiskeytown's many odes to the tavern, this one a reflection on the redundancy of a drinker's life, with lyrics alluding to the 'strip' calling out his father's name, "and it called his son's name too."

The pounding rocker "Waiting to Derail", delivered with double-tracked vocals and a sort of morbid pleasure, gives way to "Avenues", one of Ryan Adams' sweetest, saddest quick-paced acoustic numbers. Aided only by a peaceful organ cooing softly in the background, the song makes reference possibly to the frustration of having to take the long way to his girl's house, due to poor urban planning. Metaphorically it seems to allude to his own self-created roadblocks that may have obstructed his path, but he culminates the song with the ambitious line "It's going to take a lot of shit for me/To not stay away".

"Losering" is one of the band's more passionate efforts, despite containing very few lyrics. The slow instrumental build lifts the drawn-out harmonized refrain of "losering" higher and higher, with a wailing harmonica weaving its way around and about the lyrics. "Somebody Remembers the Rose" introduces a false sense of calm and acceptance to the record, asking "Am I still a stranger?" in the first verse, and ending with the repeated line "I know you."

The album culminates with the ghostly, chaotic finale, "Not Home Anymore", a song so frighteningly emotive that it's difficult to believe it exists on the same album as the placid opener. The song's unsettling mood is established in several ways: by the young singer's dual vocal tracks, dueting with himself in a troubled dialogue ("I left all the lights on in our old room/to pretend that you and I were home/waiting up somewhere for your boy"); by the fiddle's long drone creeping slowly over the agitated pace of the rimshots; by the powerful coda that features the lyrical repetition of "You, you were gone", over which Ryan passionately delivers the album's final, scathing declaration:

"It used to mean a lot, mean a lot to me,
Now it doesn't mean, doesn't mean a thing,
It used to mean a lot, mean a lot to me,
Now it doesn't mean, doesn't mean a thing,
And I pretend that it meant a lot to me,
But it never meant, never meant a thing."

And the album rings to a close, literally, with those sound of a telephone or alarm going unheeded. The last track is so powerful, such a final punctuation to this bitterly emotional album. All things considered, this album makes so much sense. Because what is an almanac? It's an informative document or publication; usually documenting passage of time. So I like to think Whiskeytown made this album for the listener; lyrically, it's a documentation of what a stranger's endeavors into love might yield. Because for the most part, you enter into a relationship with someone who was a stranger, right? Think about the first time you met your current or lost love...doesn't it seem odd to think of your introduction, your first handshake or hello? Despite the fact you now know this person so intimately and completely, there was a time that you were just strangers, completely naive to his or her existence.

I don't know that Stranger's Almanac is a cautionary tale; an almanac by definition is a reference book, strictly informational. But still, information is there for a reader's consideration, and a good mind will do more than store it. It assesses it, draws conclusions. Stranger's Almanac is there for your consideration; a log of what might happen should one choose to abandon the realm of strangers, embark into a realm of intimacy that this album so aptly reflects upon. And that, folks, is why I love this disc. Call it a comfort, call it a warning; more than anything, I call it a shining example of why I love alt.country music.

1 comment:

Brant said...

George --- fantastic breakdown of Stranger's Almanac. Too bad you just came into them now, post-band, their live shows were a site to see --- and this is by far Ryan's finest work. It is so well done --- but he had to grow --- and drink. So off he went, proliferating --- some good, some bad, right. Good work. Just stumbling.