I’ll never forget the first time I saw Whiskeytown live.
It was a Bloodshot Records package tour that had them and Hazeldine opening for Old 97s at the Sons of Hermann Hall. I had been listening to their debut “Faithless Street” in pretty heavy rotation and was I ever psyched for an alt country throwdown.
They didn’t let me down. Lead singer Ryan Adams was all rock-and-roll attitude and, after spending the evening downstairs in the bar chatting up the old bartender, really seemed to relish being up there on that legendary stage.
Whiskeytown opened their set by doing a thrash version of Old 97s’ standard opener at the time, Victoria Lee. He won me over that night. So my disappointment at subsequent Whiskeytown shows- when the band became an ever changing line-up and he seemed to be bored to tears with it all – was pretty profound.
Since that time I’ve found that as I immerse myself ever deeper into alt country, I’ve more or less ignored the genre’s poster child.
He’s nothing if not prolific. Cold Roses, Adams’ latest two-record set from Lost Highway Records, is the first of three full-length albums slated to be released this year. And he’s acclaimed. It seemed the more glowing the reviews I read, the more I wanted to ignore the records in question. The general consensus on “Cold Roses” seems to be that Adams has returned to his Whiskeytown roots, re-embracing the twang and once again proudly wearing the “alt country” banner on his sleeve.
He has a brand new band for this outing, The Cardinals, which includes lead guitarist J. P. Bowersock, former Asleep at the Wheel member Cindy Cashdollar, bassist Catherine Pepper, and Adams’ previous drummer with the Pinkhearts, Brad Pemberton. He shares songwriting and vocal credits with the various band members; the harmonies and arrangements tend to be lush while the lyrics are a bit on the bland side.
Lyrics have never been Adams strong suit. He’s built his considerable following on his ability to pen catchy-sounding pop songs with serviceable lyrics and a country edge. The country influences are there all right. The opening track, “Magnolia Mountain” features a pedal steel guitar and a nod to the Grateful Dead. From there the first disc is something of a snoozer, bringing to mind the 70s folk rock sound more than anything that could possibly be labeled “alternative country”. The third track, “Meadowlake Street”, sounded more like Bread than Neil Young in its opening chords and vocals.
Rich multilayered production and hushed vocals permeate disc one with little flashes of emotional intensity interspersed to break the overall monotony. The one exception is “Beautiful Sorta”, an up-tempo blues track that almost cuts loose with a groove – but still sounds too tightly controlled to really rock out. “Cherry Lane” kicks off with a great countryish slide guitar but ultimately dissolves into melodic banality.
The second disc is something of an improvement over the first, starting out with “Easy Plateau” and segueing nicely into one of the album’s stronger cuts, “Let it Ride”. Then it’s back to the mellow Neil Young approach of “Rosebud” that only serves to slow things down and lacks any apparent purpose other than to interject another flower metaphor.
That not being enough; the title cut follows. “Cold Roses” is a decidedly less country effort and sounds a lot more like contemporary adult alternative. From the repeating guitar riff to the wispy vocal chorus, it seems to be trying for a hook but never fully achieves one.
“If I Am A Stranger” gets back on track with a lead and pedal steel guitar duet backing up a decent vocal turn.
“Dance All Night” opens with a Dylan-esque harmonica and stands with "Ride" and "Stranger" as one of the albums highlights.
“Blossom” is another ballad, this time with a piano. It’s notable here only for its title – another flower reference.
One more song “Life is Beautiful” manages to catch the ear. It’s a pretty decent mid-tempo number that still seems to shoot off in a couple different directions without ever finding its own place.
“Friends” closes the record and I couldn’t help but wonder why it was even included. In fact, a common criticism of Cold Roses is that if it had been whittled down to a single disc, it would be a more consistent, successfully realized album. Considering the two more records scheduled for release this year, that’s a pretty valid assessment.
What seems to be missing is any sense of fun. Whiskeytown rocked with abandon and cried big old tears in its collective beer. Ryan Adams (and The Cardinals) as a solo act seems far from the insurgent country label his old band helped construct. I imagine that if you’re a fan of Ryan Adams, there’s plenty here to like. If you’re not, however, Cold Roses probably isn’t the record that turns you into one.