Both Ryan Adams, formerly of Whiskeytown, and Jay Farrar, formerly of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, recently released new records that contain the genre-bending insurgent country that both have pioneered. As admirable as their efforts are, neither record breaks any new ground.
Adams seems too ambitious for his own good. Unlike Pneumonia, Whiskeytown’s final album, his new collection, Gold, seems wrapped up in its own desire to be something more than it is. Where Pneumonia was intimate and memorable, as well as a far better record, Gold is simply big, populated with songs just good enough to be tolerable and just mediocre enough not to be memorable.
Some moments shine: “New York, New York,” which has taken on a load of new significance since Sept. 11, is a strangely buoyant moment from this otherwise melancholy poet. “La Cienega Just Smiled” is a heart-wrenching ballad (a term that could describe pretty much all of Adams’ canon), and “Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues” is a rocker that breaks up the slew of mid-tempo songs throughout the album. Still, the album never adds up to much, feeling more like a slapdash collection from a very prolific songwriter, with lots of decent songs and very few gems.
Farrar has the opposite problem: he’s too interesting. His work with two great bands was anchored in the insurgent country-rock that mixes the loud guitar crunch of Neil Young with the tear-in-your-beer balladry of George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
On his first solo album, Sebastopol, Farrar throws that anchor away, messing around with psychedelic sounds and surrealist poetry. This results in an interesting, yet unfulfilling, listening experience. Sebastopol feels more promising than Gold, though, if only because Adams didn’t produce one song as interesting as Farrar’s freak-out rocker “Voodoo Candle.” Still, nothing here is anywhere near the level of Son Volt’s “Windfall.”
While Adams and Farrar are pushing country’s boundaries, Texas legend Robert Earl Keen’s masterful new album reminds us why the genre is so great in the first place. Gravitational Forces, Keen’s first record on the fledgling Universal subsidiary label Lost Highway Records, is a superior collection of the rockin’ country that Keen, owing as much to Bob Dylan as Hank Williams, has written and played for the last 20 years. Originals like “Hello New Orleans,” “Wild Wind,” “Not a Drop of Rain” and “Walkin’ Cane” are populated with the dusty horizons and hard-luck losers that seem to be everywhere in Keen’s writing, and his sense of melody has never been stronger. His voice shines on the album’s covers, particularly the jubilantly rebellious “Hall of Fame,” an aching take on Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone,” and the utterly gorgeous “Snowin’ On Raton,” written by Townes Van Zandt, another great Texan songwriter. (Steve Earle once said, “Townes Van Zandt is the greatest songwriter in the world, and I’d stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”). Strangely, the only misstep is a new version of Keen’s masterpiece “The Road Goes On Forever.”
It’s totally possible that Adams will grow into one of the best songwriters of his generation and that Farrar will fall off the deep end into pretentious Beck-esque genre hopping, but at least Farrar doesn’t seem content writing merely “pretty good” songs. Neither Gold nor Sebastopol is a complete disaster, and each possesses more honky-tonk truth than anything from Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Shania Twain or the rest. Still, Ryan Adams and Jay Farrar would be wise to remember that great country, whether classic, honky-tonk, outlaw or insurgent, is made up of great, memorable songs. All they need to do is listen to Robert Earl Keen to figure that out