Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A rational response to a comment

This seems a bit low, using my own larger forum to respond to a commenter, but I feel it's warranted. I just thought the argument he or she made in their rather curt response to my Cass McCombs post was worthy of further discussion. So here goes:

The comment:

"Anyone who thinks Ryan Adams doesn't have his own sound isn't listening." -- Sandy

The response:

Hi Sandy,

I suppose it's fair to say I'm being a little harsh on Ryan. But, contrary to what you're saying, I think the problem is I've listened too much. Over the years I've worn out every album, every unreleased session, scores of live shows, and even a few tracks that I shouldn't even be talking about. So, yes, I'm listening.

But I think you also have to grant me that Ryan often wears his influences on his sleeve. Particular RA tracks are, arguably of course, facsimiles of certain songs by artists he's publicly named as influencers. Most notably, "Afraid Not Scared" bears a striking resemblance to Radiohead's "How to Disappear Completely". "Tina Toledo's Streetwalkin' Blues" is a Stones' hybrid, half "Brown Sugar" and half "Can't You Hear Me Knockin". And it doesn't need mentioning that his Grateful Dead obsession certainly shines through in his setlists and albums alike. Finally, I remember a quote of his in which, to paraphrase, he said he wanted Gold to sound like listening to a 70s music station, cycling through various genres.

I could make scores of other arguments, but these are some pretty overt examples. I still stand firmly behind Mr. Adams' talent, and I'd be lying if I said he didn't write a handful of my favorite albums. But the more I explore the many, many branches of his flowchart of influence, I realize that he often sacrifices his own creativity for an imitative style. And he usually does it very well, but doesn't exactly challenge the listener. And it's almost universally acknowledged that his last two albums have been exhibited a marked regression. I guess my question to you, or anyone who takes issue with my assertion, would be, "Have you listened at length to these artists who influence Ryan's work?" If the answer is yes, and you still feel that his "sound" is more his own vision than that of his influences, I'd be curious to hear your reasons.

This would be an interesting discussion to ignite; which songs best display Ryan Adams at his purest, as a composite of his influences instead of a reflection of them. Magnolia Mountain? Dear Chicago? Perhaps the unreleased Suicide Handbook or Destroyer albums? Look for an upcoming post on this topic.

In totality, Cass McCombs is a poor substitute for Ryan Adams. He's just taken some steps in his songwriting on Catacombs that I always wished Ryan had. So rest assured I've been listening very closely to Ryan, and I'll continue to do so. But when I hear an album that doesn't seem like it's been filtered through the artist's record collection, chances are I'm not listening to Ryan.

I welcome your rebuttal, although chances are you stumbled across the post and are somewhere deep within the vast forest of interwebs. But if not, have at it! I'll even post it for you.


j said...

Well..."My Blue Manhattan" is one of my absolute favorite songs of his. It's got some of the dreaminess that can sometimes be heard in Sonic Youth or Radiohead, but it isn't Sonic Youth or Radiohead. The way the piano and strings are used give it the much softer sound that takes Ryan's music to a place where it is most definitely his own.

Sandy said...

Thanks for the invitation to rant at more length.You'll probably be sorry.
I have pretty much every official and unoffical Ryan Adams /(WT,Pinkhearts, Killers, Sweetheart Revolution,Cardinals etc )release, plus about 400 live shows, have been a fan since I first heard WT circa 1997.

Yeah,he's done songs, albums, in styles or voices or with phrases etc that belonged to other bands, but even when the influences were swallowed whole rather than digested, I like his songs better than the inspiration. Also, he can cover songs--Wonder Wall and Down in a Hole come to mind--and make them more his than the original artist's.But I don't think that's all he's done.

I should just admit that I'd listen to him sing the phone book because I love his voice (in all it's variations and permutations) and his phrasing.But that isn't all of it, either.

If I had to pick the albums (released or otherwise) that I thought were the most Ryan, I'd start with 48 Hours (Why in hell wasn't that released?)
Even if you can trace influences through it, I just love it and It seems to me, totally Ryan. Love Is Hell feels to me like no one else could have made that record. Cold Roses, whatever the influences, has so many amazing and gorgeous songs that I think only he could have written. It's way more than the sum of its parts.

On all the rest of his albums there are songs that I can't imagine anyone else could have
written or sung -Blue Sky Blues, Carolina Rain, Crossed Out Name, I Taught Myself to Grow Old. In the unreleased column--Dear Anne. And if you have, as I imagine you do, the Elizabethtown /Darkbreaker sessions- most of that is just pure Ryan-- Everything Dies,
Don't Get Sentimental on Me especially.

I can't end this without saying that Heartbreaker doesn't hold up for me. It's my least favorite album. Much as I love most of the individual songs, it always makes me think of something he tossed off to an audience, already yelling song titles at him, somewhere around 2001 or 2002--"If I knew who I was I don't think I'd be up here."

The truth is, his music grabbed my heart and soul a long time ago and has enriched my life, and that is way way more than I can say about any of his influences.

And I agree with Jaimie about My Blue Manhattan. That's exactly what I mean (and said way more concisely).

George said...

Hi again Sandy -- thanks for responding, although I'm not sure why you think I'd be sorry. I welcome discussion in our comments section and am glad to see you participate. Rather than make another post, I'll just respond here.

I'll say from the onset that I agree with about half of what you say here. You listed some examples of work that I think (and hope) Ryan will be remembered for; solid songwriting, great pipes, and a severe emotional punch. The Elizabethtown sessions feature a handful of definitive songs, I agree (as well as some schlock and a few numbers that would back my argument.) "Everyone Dies" and "Don't Get Sentimental" are fantastic examples; I'd also argue the opener, "Cemetery Hill" is distinctly Ryan.

I think the problem is that we both have a bias here, just on opposite ends of the spectrum. I am admittedly a bit overcritical, and my presumption is that you're very defensive. And that's not a bad thing--I get that way about a handful of artists, and at one time Ryan was included there. The problem with music reviews and analysis is that there is no right or wrong; there are opinions disguised as fact. So we can spend all day drilling holes in arguments and it'd be based on nothing more than our own perceptions.

That said, I think Ryan has sort of undermined his own brilliance for me. Not only have his last two albums underwhelmed me to a depressing degree, but also his live shows (or those that I've seen) became stale, his web presence was a nuisance, and his other art--the poetry and paintings he shared--I found sub-par, to be kind.

I think seeing these vulnerabilities was a wake-up call, and I realized it was unhealthy to fight for Ryan at every turn. I'd just end up looking stupid, since I was unable to defend a rapidly expanding portion of his catalog. At the same time, my tastes were experiencing a paradigm shift. I was lest interested in singer-songwriters, more interested in full bands, instrument-heavy compositions and cohesive themes in album crafting. None of which, I'd argue, are things Ryan loses sleep over. His strong point is singing, songwriting/crafting, and delivery (of course there are exceptions wherein he's touched on those other areas but by and large I believe this is true.)

But of course, I can't project my tastes and observations on you. My tastes have shifted so violently over the past few years, to the point that Ryan isn't even in my first wave of answers to the "Who do you listen to?" question. So honestly, it's difficult for us to see eye to eye on the topic of Ryan Adams when we're viewing him through different lenses.

I think this sort of culminates at this: You are inarguably a dedicated fan, one who's been on board with Ryan since I was in Little League, and it's absolutely been made clear that your defense of him is nothing less than genuine.

But I will say, I'm not the only one who holds the opinion that Ryan can be derivative to the point of distraction. And to that end, I feel that he hasn't released an album since WT's Stranger's Almanac that's come across to me as 100% forward thinking and in no way diluted by current musical whims. I would almost consider throwing Demolition into the category as well (such a strong period; if only those cherry-picked albums had been proper releases.) Anyway, I know you probably scoff at this paragraph, but with equal confidence do I stand behind it.

That said, I really do value your input, and I think there are leagues of others who'd take your side. I, respectably, am not one of them. While I know I won't change your opinion, nor is that my aim or desire; I hope I have shed a little light on why I stand where I do, just as you did in your comment.

Thanks Sandy! Keep reading, I promise I write a lot of good things about Ryan too...