It may come as a surprise even to most fans that Ryan Adams' brand of barroom rock and misty-eyed balladry owes as much to the less-hip corners of rock culture (such as Slayer) as it does to such icon
Spend enough time with lauded singer/songwriter Ryan Adams, and chances are good that the conversation will eventually meander through topics of love and heartbreak, New York vs. Los Angeles, and speedy songwriting, before somehow turning to -- of all things -- death-metal juggernaut Slayer.
It may take a while, but Adams-the former frontman of alt-country heroes Whiskeytown -- will get there. In conversation, he might make a silly reference to the head-bangin' outfit. In concert, he may even attempt one of the group's buzz-saw guitar solos -- on an acoustic guitar, no less. And, for this, he's routinely awarded with laughter. Yet Adams is only half-kidding.
An unashamed pop-culture sponge, the 26-year-old, Jacksonville, N.C.-born singer could just as easily dissect Slayer's best records (for the uninitiated, 1986's "Reign in Blood" tops '88's "South of Heaven") as he could those of the rock, country, and punk legends that have obviously informed his own work.
It may come as a surprise even to most fans that Adams' brand of barroom rock and misty-eyed balladry owes as much to the less-hip corners of rock culture as it does to such icons as Neil Young, Paul Westerberg, and Bruce Springsteen. But this helps explain why his new solo set -- "Gold," due Sept. 25 from Lost Highway -- is the most mainstream-leaning, least alt-country, and most uptempo of any of his albums.
As "Gold" moves from hard-strumming midtempos to gripping ballads and from choir-backed confessionals to Stones-worthy boogie, the album gracefully reaffirms Adams' musical range and impeccable storytelling skills. If he began to spread his wings on the long-delayed, recently released Whiskeytown swan song "Pneumonia" (Lost Highway), consider him soaring on "Gold," the first of two albums that he has recorded this year.
All of this comes as no surprise to Lost Highway president/Mercury Nashville chairman Luke Lewis. "Part of the beauty of Ryan," he says, "is that he's capable of surprising you in a really nice way. He takes you to places that you can't imagine he'd take you -- with a really strange combination of styles."
"Just the other day," Lewis adds, "he was playing me some crazed thing by some band. I'd never even heard of it." What was it? "Speed metal."
Adams raves, "I just really dig records. And I love metal. I think some people even think I'm joking when I tell them that I like Mariah Carey. I really like her records. They're so cool and fun. She's really fun, really sexy."
"I can talk about that," Adams continues, "just like I can talk about whatever happened to [Celtic Frost leader] Tommy Gabriel Warrior when he did the whole Cherry Orchard thing and they went glam -- after doing 'Morbid Tales' and 'Into the Pandemonium' -- same as I can talk about really liking Peter Tosh and listening to [the Grateful Dead's] 'Live Dead,' like, 90 times."
Although free of speed-metal licks and high-flying diva pop, the songs on 'Gold' are a kind of Cliff Notes version of Adams' life over the past one-and-a-half years, during which he broke up with his girlfriend and moved from New York to Nashville -- where he cut his 2000 solo debut, Bloodshot's "Heartbreaker." In Nashville, he also formed and wrote with two side projects, the Esquires (featuring Gillian Welch and David Rawlings) and his roots-punk band the Pink Hearts; along the way, he visited Mexico, England, and Los Angeles, before moving again -- this time to Hollywood, Calif.
Adams points out that the journey's recounting was a little more coherent in the album's original form, when it was slated to span two discs. The album is now a 16-track single disc. "It's scrambled, but it's still there. You just have to be more forgiving of it than if it was completely strict."
Helping to fill in some of the gaps will be a five-song EP that Lost Highway is bundling with the first 75,000 copies of "Gold," which features guitar and vocals by singer/songwriter Chris Stills (Stephen Stills' son), percussion by celebrated drummer Jim Keltner, and guest vocals by Juliana Raye and Counting Crows' Adam Duritz. Each track on the EP was written during the "Gold" sessions. Several of those and the "Gold" tune "Gonna Make You Love Me" carry Spanish rhythms and imagery inspired by a trip Adams and the Pink Hearts took to Cancun, Mexico.
Produced by Ethan Johns, who was also at the controls for "Pneumonia" and "Heartbreaker," the album begins with first single "New York, New York" -- a reflective if rollicking rocker in which Adams bids farewell to "the city and the love of my life" -- and ends with the melancholy "Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard."
On the soulful, piano-laden "Rescue Blues," Adams helps a loved one out of an emotional slump only to have the gesture backfire. He dreams of meeting his own little dark poetess on "Sylvia Plath." Adams wrote "When the Stars Go Blue," the album's most gorgeous ballad, in just a few minutes. Unlike "Heartbreaker," this record "isn't about beating myself up over things or feelings," Adams says. "I think some of the awkwardness is gone. And some of the questions I had to ask are a little bit gone."
Los Angeles influenced the title, lyrics, and feel of "Gold," Adams says. The title describes L.A. at dusk. "La Cienega Just Smiled" comes from a moment when he stood on the corner of La Cienega Boulevard and Melrose Avenue reflecting on his recent past.
"In New York, I think I wrote more from a claustrophobic kind of sense," Adams explains. "I wrote outward because everything was so in. You're in this small-ass apartment, the fucking subway is hot, it's busy. So you internalize. 'Pneumonia' is a very internal album. It lacks a sense of time and a sense of place, which allows it to be sort of free-floating, gaseous, strange music. That's what I think I needed at the time. I needed to de-structure stuff, because New York is so structured.
"But when I came to California, I think I looked harder for structure, because there's so much room here, so much space," Adams continues. "Also, with the weather, you can get outside more. And so I think 'Gold' sounds more structured." Adams, who says he's working on a book about the people he has met in the bars and on the streets of Hollywood, says the city's relaxed feel subconsciously seeped into the tempo of the record, particularly on such songs as "La Cienega Just Smiled."
Also making an impact on the mood of "Gold," according to Adams, was time spent listening to a lot of John Hammond, James Taylor, and "all that Keith [Richards] stuff, all that great Beggars Banquet-style acoustic rhythms." As with most of his songs, Adams wrote the "Gold" material on acoustic guitar. But for the first time since he finished work on Whiskeytown's acclaimed 1997 album, "Stranger's Almanac" (Outpost), the songwriter used a pick when playing. This helps explain why the album is strikingly upbeat compared to "Heartbreaker" and "Pneumonia" -- both of which he wrote in his old apartment in New York's East Village, using his fingers and thumb to pluck or strum his guitar, partially to avoid upsetting the neighbors.
The release of "Gold" finds Adams starring in his first video (for "New York, New York"), and the artist plans to embark on his first extensive tour since Whiskeytown's final jaunt. Adams will tour the East Coast in the fall and embark on a quick trek in October across Europe. He may also open a few shows for Counting Crows.
Backing him on the road will be the Pink Hearts, with whom he recently finished recording an as-yet-untitled album produced by Dave Dominick (Lenny Kravitz) slated for release in the first half of 2002. The band just may be Adams' Crazy Horse. "It's f**kin' punk as hell," he says. "Those guys are loud as f**k, like Zeppelin." The Pink Hearts include lead guitarist Brad Rice, bassist Billy Mercer, drummer Brad Pemberton, and Bucky Backster on guitar, lap and pedal steel, and organ.
Adams calls the raucous, very electric "Gold" track "Enemy Fire" (written with the Squires) a "signpost," pointing at what to expect from the Pink Hearts. The upcoming album is to include Adams' Appalachian-dirge version of Oasis' "Wonderwall," as well as "Song for Keith Richards" -- which, aptly, features longtime Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys.
Making a considerable comparison, Interscope Geffen A&M A&R exec Mark Williams -- who signed Whiskeytown while a principal at the now-defunct Outpost -- says that Adams is showing the sort of range and drive evinced by Neil Young, with the Pink Hearts project underlining that.
"I see Ryan in very much a similar context as Neil, where Neil could go and make a Crazy Horse record with a rock band or he could go and make 'Comes a Time' or 'Harvest,' a more traditional, folk-based kind of a record -- or he could make more experimental records," Williams says. "I have no doubt he's going to evolve and make fantastic records over a long career."
The Pink Hearts project is on track to be the third album that Adams has written and recorded in roughly a year. "It's crazy," Lewis says. "He writes a song or two every day. He's got a quick, busy mind. It's a stretch to call anybody a genius, but he's certainly got some of it in him."
Adams says Whiskeytown is officially defunct. Although he and the band had discussed reuniting for a show or two to celebrate the May release of "Pneumonia," they decided against it, so as not to give fans the "wrong impression." After a two-year delay triggered by the merger of Universal and PolyGram, the album's highly anticipated release was greeted with little real fanfare. The set debuted on The Billboard 200 at No. 158 in the June 9 issue, dropping off the chart the next week.
Nic Harcourt, music director of KCRW Los Angeles, agrees. "I think Ryan is a work in progress -- he's still young. But, at some point, he's going to put out an album that's just going to blow everybody away."
Caught in a humble moment, Adams himself isn't so sure. "I'm going to suck any minute, dude," he jokes. "It's so around the corner. I suck half the time anyway. You guys don't get to hear the s**t that's horrible."