2001 / Music

Review: Ryan Adams’ New Album Is Close To ‘Gold’

Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band Top New Releases

Read The Reviews: Ryan Adams | Butthole Surfers | Rollins Band


If alt-country star Ryan Adams is truly intent on emulating his heroes from rock’s golden era, his ability to crank out albums in quick succession already equals the furious songwriting pace set by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

His latest, “Gold,” is Adams’ second release of the year, and marks a critical step in the development of his solo career. But is the album really worth it’s weight in … well, you know.

Other new albums in stores come from some survivors of the 90s alternative music explosion: Tori Amos, the Butthole Surfers and the Rollins Band.

Ryan Adams “Gold”

Ryan Adams fronts like he’s a Keith Richards-style tough guy, croons weeping ballads like his country-rock idol Gram Parsons and is as prolific a songwriter as Prince, yet the former Whiskeytown leader is his own man. Kind of.

Photo: Lost Highway Records

Photo: Lost Highway Records

Unlike his compatriots like the Jayhawks or Wilco, Adams is one of the few lights of alt-country’s new guard that hasn’t turned his back on the genre. As such, he has been the No Depression movement’s darling, their knight in a sparkling Nudie suit.

Adams’ sprawling new album “Gold,” is a 16-song, cross-country odyssey about dying love, starting with the sprite “New York, New York,” and concluding with the tender piano ballad, “Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd.” But unlike his output of late, “Gold” is an album where Adams too often betrays himself by masking his considerable singing and songwriting talents in rewrites of roots music standards.

In a recent interview, the album”s producer Ethan Johns said that Adams told him he wanted the record to sound like “classic rock radio,” and the pair succeeded.

More explicit on “Gold” than previous records, is the fact that much of Adams’ songs are gathered from ’60s – ’70s musical scraps — although each track is embedded with enough lilting choruses and lyrical heartache to leave a personal imprint (think of Oasis’ Noel Gallagher).

Like Gallagher, it seems that Adams struggles with getting a song going. The attentive listener will spot similarities between several masterworks of the classic rock canon and the beginning of many of Adams’ songs: “Answering Bell” starts off with a chord phrase from the Band’s “The Weight.” Adams borrowed the acoustic guitar intro from the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” for his own “Nobody Girl.” For “Enemy Fire,” the music roars with pounding, Black Sabbath-like riffs.

To be fair, Adams’ songs do take on a life on their own. Stacked with other instruments, the songs evolve into one-way conversations about love, bitterness and dejectedness.

A pedal steel guitar slithers through the springy “Answering Bell,” setting up a chorus with faint harmonies courtesy of Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz. In “Enemy Fire,” tailing the bruising guitar is a hard-hitting downbeat that signals the refrain, “Baby, it’s too late.”

The songs on “Gold” are emotional and instrumentally ornate, but lack the eclecticism and pop immediacy of the tracks on “Pneumonia,” Whiskeytown’s long-delayed swan song that was released last spring. (Read Soundbytes review) The “Gold” songs are easily more verbose and excitable than the cuts on Adams’ love-sick solo debut, “Heartbreaker.”

One of the real pleasures of “Gold” is the array of characters that Adams is able to inhabit vocally. Adams’ voice slips into seductive mode on the piano-based, “La Cienega Just Smiled,” and then sheds any sensitivity for a country holler on “The Rescue Blues.” For “When The Stars Go Blue, Adams replays memories in the lyrics and sings with an innocent, lonesome tone.

In the end, “Gold” is both enjoyable and disappointing. Coming from alt-country’s golden boy, “Gold” comes close at times to striking the musical mother load. But he’s been closer before.

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Butthole Surfers “The Weird Revolution”

In his recent book, “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” writer Michael Azerrad wades through a legion of stories about riding in decrepit vans, depressing poverty and a handful of musical epiphanies, to tell the tale of the ’80s post-punk bands that laid the foundation for the ’90s alternative rock revolution.

But when Azerrad gets to Texas legends, the Butthole Surfers, his chapter-long commentary is filled with tales about the group’s on- and off-stage antics, and glides right over the landmark records the group made. And sadly, that’s because the Surfers never produced an album that was worth listening through completely.

While the group’s psychedelia-infused music and mischievous attitude has served them well — helping them to produce several seminal cuts and setting the band apart from the other hardcore bands — their hit songs have been marooned on albums filled with undercooked experiments. The Surfers’ latest, “The Weird Revolution,” is more of the same.

It’s been five years since the Surfers shocked the mainstream music world when they scored a hit with the electronica-tinged “Pepper.” After that, the group departed from Capitol Records, tinkered with what would become “The Weird Revolution,” and signed to Hollywood Records.

Despite the passage of time, the new album musically picks up exactly where “Pepper” left off as the band continues to move from their punk roots and dabble with samplers. Buzzing guitar licks are mingled with programmed beats and samples of keyboards, sitars, congas and various sound effects.

Worse than the music’s seeming state of suspended animation are the pitiful lyrics. Where the Surfers, like their contemporaries, the Meat Puppets, were once able to create arresting word collages with their lyrics that were both surreal and grossly hilarious, two-thirds of “The Weird Revolution” is humorless and essentially crude.

A prime example is the disposable “Shit Like That.” The cut is an boring acid freakout set to a Beastie Boys beat.

Almost as bad is “Dracula From Houston,” which sounds like a half-finished home recording. Built around a cheery, cheerleader chorus led by singer Gibby Hayes, the song’s bland verses only fill time until a chorus reappears. In the opening verse, Hayes the lyricist has fallen so far as to rhyme “funky” and “monkey.”

It’s sad because the album starts strong with the fuzz-rock mayhem of “The Weird Revolution.” The song, a tongue-in-cheek call to arms for all “weirdoes,” is a rewrite of a Malcolm X speech delivered with conviction by Hayes.

Following the title track is the album’s best moment, “The Shame of Life.” The mid-tempo song, co-penned by Kid Rock, has already begun to get some airplay on modern rock radio stations around the country and deservedly so. The tune — with Hayes’ rapping about “squirrels smoking crack” and a man “cooking egg in his shoe” — is the lone flashback to their old lyrical magic. Kid Rock’s input is apparent in the sleazy chorus, “I like the girls and the money and the shame of life.”

The real shame however, is that you can only glimpse what the Butthole Surfers are truly capable of once or twice on each album.

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Rollins Band “Nice”

“I’m a broken record,” sings Henry Rollins on his group’s new album, “Nice.” Unintentionally, that line might be the most honest and revealing lyric the former Black Flag vocalist has ever sung.

“Nice” is Rollins’ second album after sacking the most accomplished version of his band. Luckily, with the ferocious attack of Rollins’ new metal-oriented three-piece (drafted from L.A. combo Mother Superior), you probably won’t miss the old guys.

For as much flexibility and youthful enthusiasm that’s exploding from this new band, “Nice” still can’t escape the musical rut that the Rollins Band has been stuck in since their debut album.

The problem is the group’s lone original member: Henry Rollins.

Even though Rollins has opted for the role of rock’s Renaissance man — diversifying himself as an actor, spoken-word artist and author — his music has remained oddly one-dimensional. Always forceful, his songs are really only a chance for the man to vent. Lyrically, he restricts himself to heavy-handedly preaching his “straight edge” philosophy or banging his head against the wall with self-hatred.

His solo recording career has been a steady stream of plodding, heavy-rock albums filled with Mr. T public service announcements as lyrics, with the occasional digression into Iggy Pop-like episodes of self-pity. (Not surprisingly, the album features a bossy song titled, “Stop Look And Listen.” )

Not all is lost. “Nice” does have moments when Rollins is willing to add a new texture to the music. He throws a troupe of female backup singers in to give an assist on “Up For It.” Later, he permits a few jazzy breakdowns to interrupt the monotony of “Let That Devil Out.”

These additions are little more than flourishes meant to enhance an approach that seemed formulaic long ago.

So in another song when Rollins moans, “I want so much more,” I must confess that I know the feeling.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2001 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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