Sunday, November 04, 2007
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, ‘Follow the Lights’—and Other EPs I Love
Ryan Adams’ latest release is satisfying and frustrating for the same reason: If a few of the songs found here had made their way onto “Easy Tiger,” the prolific singer/songwriter’s full-length release from June, that album may have ranked as one of his best efforts.
I have no idea why the mercurial Adams decided to leave both “Follow the Lights” and especially the sublime “My Love for You Is Real” off “Tiger,” but these songs alone make this seven-track EP more than worth the five bucks it costs. The latter is a splendid straightforward love song Adams has been carrying around in his big bag of gems for the better part of a decade; it’s rapidly becoming one of my favorites. A song written during the “Gold” period (I'm pretty sure, anyway), “My Love for You” is definitely reminiscent of that point in his career with its focused, polished, yet still adventurous vibe. It starts out quietly, growing in passion and intensity as more instruments join the fray for an extended electric/acoustic jam. The track would have fit in so nicely with the fabulous opening trio from “Easy Tiger,” but thus is the give-and-take of loving this man’s music—you never get exactly what you want when you want it.
This new EP also features a killer country version of Alice in Chains’ “Down in a Hole,” which Adams has been trotting out to rave reviews while on tour this year. A man very publicly recovering from substance abuse, Adams makes this song wholly his own, and his version holds its own against anything he’s ever recorded. This is an absolute must for any AIC fan—or Adams fan, for that matter. “Hole” is coupled with another cover, Willie Nelson’s “Blue Hotel,” which hails from the country legend’s “Songbird,” an album produced by Adams last year.
The remaining three songs are reworkings of Adams’ own songs, and they achieve varying levels of success. “This Is It” is the lead track off 2003’s “Rock N Roll,” Adams’ ill-fated attempt at gutter rock. This version is far superior, proving once again how valuable the Cardinals are to Adams as a backbone to his music.
This EP only fails with its final two entries. First up is a stripped-down approach to “If I Am a Stranger,” one of the best tracks off 2005’s “Cold Roses.” The song is so good it’ll play well no matter how Adams records it and the slightly altered arrangement here is fine, but I don’t really see the point of including it. Same goes for the barely-discernible differences in the re-arranged “Dear John” (from 2005’s “Jacksonville City Nights”), which closes the EP. These two tracks are fine, I guess, but for a guy who writes songs like breathing, I find it odd he wouldn’t dig up a couple more new tracks for an official release. These last two kill the momentum of the disc and end an otherwise excellent EP with a bit of a whimper.
Between this post over at Fuel/Friends and the strength of new EPs from Adams and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I’ve been thinking a lot about the format recently. Know what I’ve discovered? I love them, despite myself.
I’ve always thought of EPs as lesser releases, wishing the band would have just pushed on for a full album of new material. Plus, it kinda annoyed me to listen to them on a practical level; they’re over so quickly it was barely worth putting them in the CD player. But with the advent of the iPod, where it’s so easy to jump from album to album, the EP has undergone a reawakening in my musical rotation. It surprised me to find on further contemplation how much I love some of those in my collection, and how high they rank in the catalogs of some of my favorite artists. Here’s a list of some of my favorites:
“Chulahoma,” The Black Keys (2006)—You’d be hard-pressed to find a better collection of six guitar-driven, brawny blues tracks than those included on the latest release from this excellent two-piece band. Someone sent me “Meet Me in the City,” the third song off this EP, on a mix CD and I was hooked instantly. If The White Stripes are Led Zeppelin, then the Keys are Stevie Ray Vaughn—a bit mellower and more down-to-earth, but enthralling all the same. Also recommended (and equally excellent): 2004’s “Rubber Factory.”
“So Impossible,” Dashboard Confessional (2001)—A concept album in four songs, this release vividly describes all the nervous and exciting stages of newfound love—from the silent pining of “For You to Notice,” to the this-might-just-work hope of the title track, to the pre-date jitters of “Remember to Breathe,” to the triumphant glee of “Hands Down.” This is my favorite D/C release.
“Recently,” Dave Matthews Band (1994)—Five songs of perfection, “Recently” is DMB at their best. Every cut—recorded live—is a band classic played with incendiary fervor. Revisiting this disc now (also my favorite of their entire catalog), it’s easy to remember why this was one of my favorite groups for a long period of my life. They’ve fallen a long way in the intervening years, but the “Recently” EP remains untainted in its greatness.
“Merkinball,” Pearl Jam w/Neil Young (1995)—One of the most powerful one-two punches in Pearl Jam’s catalog, the two songs found here—“I Got Shit” and “Long Road”—deliver on the tantalizing promise of PJ’s work with their godfather, Neil Young, that wasn’t quite fulfilled with “Mirrorball,” Young Neil’s full-length from earlier that year that featured PJ as the backing band. These are without question two of Pearl Jam’s best songs, and I feel their work with Young set a new course for the band that resulted in two stellar follow-up albums, “No Code” and “Yield.” There’s a reason why these songs continue to pop up with regularity at shows more than a decade later: “Merkinball” is essential Pearl Jam listening.
“7,” U2 (2002)—This Target exclusive came completely out of nowhere but delivered some choice cuts from U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” period. First and foremost is the alternate version of “Walk On,” which features the “Hallelujah” outro chorus—one of my favorite moments of U2’s entire catalog. Also included here is an alternate—and far, far superior—acoustic version of “Stuck in a Moment,” stripped of all the studio cheese found on the official release two years prior. “Summer Rain” is a fun b-side, and “Always” showed us what “Beautiful Day” evolved from. I also love the inclusion of the “Elevation (Influx Remix),” since the band used this as its walk-on music for the 2001 tour of the same name. This EP is probably forgotten by now to most of the U2 community, but I still return to it regularly.
“Wide Awake in America,” U2 (1985)—An albeit abridged companion piece of the “Unforgettable Fire” tour, the two b-sides on this quickie are actually rather forgettable. It’s the two live cuts that make this disc essential: the always thrilling “A Sort of Homecoming,” and a version of “Bad” that I remember reading somewhere described as the defining recording of this classic song.
“Is Is,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2007)—Not much to add here from what I wrote last month. This is definitely one of my favorite discs of 2007, and maybe even better than the band’s last full-length, 2006’s “Show Your Bones.” As soon as it finishes, I just want to listen to it again. And again. And again.