Jacksonville City Nights
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
Lost Highway Records, 2005
REVIEW BY: Kenny S. McGuane
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/14/2008
Who the hell is Ryan Adams?
He’s from Jacksonville, North Carolina, he’s thirty-something, he was a key player in the alt-country explosion of the early ‘90s and he may or may not be some kind of genius.
That doesn’t get us very far, but it’s about all we know for sure.
After releasing four excellent records between 1996 and 2000 with his critically adored band Whiskeytown, Adams went solo. Since 2000, Ryan Adams has stuck his nose/dabbled in seemingly dozens of genres with each new record he’s released. While all of his records are a strong indication of his extraordinary talent as a songwriter, it is the lack of consistency, cohesiveness, and focus in/on the writing/production/genre that has made Ryan Adams an easy target for what is often a brutal critical assessment.
Is he a country singer? Is he a rock & roller? Or is he a soft-rock crooner?
It’s hard to tell. He’s all of the above depending on what album you’re listening to. But it seems like he is most comfortable when he’s got his country music hat on. In 200, Adams had enough recorded, mixed, and mastered enough material to release three albums -- one of which was a double album -- and a collection of B-sides. Three records in a year? Jesus. You don’t see productivity like that anymore. When was the last time that that girly yacht-rock monster John Mayer did three in a year? I know, I know. Just ‘cause Adams has enough material for three records doesn’t mean it’s all worth releasing. Thing is, they were great records. Cold Roses, 29, and the album in question here, Jacksonville City Nights, are some of the best of his lengthy and varied catalog, and Jacksonville is the strongest of the 2005/2006 Ryan Adams trilogy.
If some of Adams’ previous work hints at his passion for country music, then this disc hints at country music being a basic necessity of life. While his other albums use country music as a sort of vehicle for production and arrangement, the material here finds Adams and his excellent band The Cardinals embracing the genre entirely. Jon Graboff’s pedal steel drives most of the tracks, while Adams’ string plucking and dive bar piano-plinking sit quietly in the mix, leaving every single lyric on top so that you can hear him breathe between words.
Pretty sure you can actually hear the sound of heartbreak, smell the smell of cigarettes, and taste the taste of whiskey on tracks like “Hard Way To Fall” and “The End.” Adams is joined by the smoky Norah Jones on “Dear John,” where her playing and singing is as innocuous and pedestrian as ever. All of the tracks are likeable here; there is not a bad tune on the record, even if there are too many. Sure, there’s some filler, but they’re a fine way to pass the time between album highlights like “The Hardest Part” and “A Kiss Before I Go.”
2000’s Heartbreaker is widely considered to be the only Ryan Adams masterpiece. While the songs here aren’t nearly as strong the ones found on Heartbreaker, it definitely holds together just as well. Similar to Heartbreaker and 2007’s Easy Tiger, Jacksonville City Nights is an example of the kind of high-quality work Adams is capable of if he controls his creative energy and spends time focusing on the musical direction and purpose of a record.
The jury’s still out on whether or not Ryan Adams is a genius. He has an enormous body of work -- thirteen studio albums since 1996 if you include the Whiskeytown records -- a great deal of which is top-notch material. The only thing that’s totally predictable about Adams is that he’ll always be releasing as many albums as time and his record label will allow.
Whether or not that’s a good thing is for you to decide.
© 2008 Kenny S. McGuane and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Lost Highway Records, and is used for informational purposes only.