Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, III/IV [2010]

Posted by Greg , Wednesday, December 15, 2010 2:30 PM

People who review music need to justify why their assessments are worth being called something more than just another opinion.  The most common way to do that is to spend several paragraphs attempting to identify an artists' influences and inspirations, often without really knowing where the artist was coming from when he or she wrote a particular song.  This sickness seems to particularly afflict reviewers of Ryan Adams' music.  (Just look at anyone else's review and you'll see what I mean.)

Of course, I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else.  After all, without giving you some information you didn't already know, other than "it's good" or "it's bad," what's the point?  Luckily, I think, my wife is mostly immune to this.  Whenever I ask her what she thinks of a song, she'll usually say "meh" or "it's okay."  And that's if she likes it.  When she hates a song, I usually get a "You like this?"  (No, honey.  I'm listening to this song because I hate myself.)  Anyway, when listening to "Numbers" on the IV disc of Ryan Adams & the Cardinals' new release III/IV, I thought aloud, "Who does this sound like?"  She replied, in her typically matter-of-fact way, "It sounds like him.  If you played this for me and I didn't know it was him, I'd say it sounded like him."  So there's that.

Interestingly enough, III/IV really does not sound like anything you've heard from Ryan Adams & the Cardinals.  The band's first two records were alt. country masterpiece Cold Roses and 60s-country inspired Jacksonville City NightsEasy Tiger and Cardinology, while still country-tinged, were more commercially appealing singer/songwriter folk rock albums.

By contrast, III/IV rocks out.  The easy comparison is to Adams' 2003 solo album Rock N Roll, without the underlying bitterness borne of a major label telling him he couldn't release the album he really wanted to (Love is Hell).  But this feels more like the demos recorded under the moniker Sad Dracula, briefly released online in 2006.  For whatever reason, Adams' demos and unreleased material have always felt unrestrained in ways his more recent official releases may not, and finally we have a record that exemplifies this.  Maybe Lost Highway (the band's former label) really was holding Adams back as much as he always said it was.  It's no surprise, then, that III/IV plays more like a Cardinals live show (at least those of the electric, "Red Cave" variety) than any of the Cardinals' studio releases over the past 5 years.  It's like we've been given a snapshot into the essence of this band at the height of its creative power.

III is the more straightforward rock record.  All those positive things critics said about Easy Tiger - concise, focused, etc. - can just as appropriately be said about III, albeit for a much more upbeat sound.  With roughly 60 songs from which to choose, the band clearly took its time to find the right tracklist for each LP.  The story told by Jamie Candiloro on Adams' PAX-AM label's website rings true:
"Probably the thing I remember most about these session was a chart system that we used on the back wall of electric lady [note: Electric Lady is the studio in which III/IV and Easy Tiger were recorded - GTI] to keep track of things. It had album titles and song names with the song’s progress. I think at one point we had four albums and even a b-sides list! We were constantly moving songs around to find the perfect sequence. One album that started to form seemed like a bit of a folk record to me. It was around thanksgiving that I presented a cd that was essentially the cuts that would become “easy tiger”. My version had sixteen songs though! Another record that was at the front of our attention was something Ryan called vol. 3 & 4. The idea being that “cold roses” was vol 1 & 2 and this was a logical step that the cardinals had taken forward as a band effort. The tracks shared the democratic process of a band, which always gives a record more depth to me."
"Breakdown Into the Resolve," arguably the best track on III, opens things up on a strong note.  "Hi, hello, it's me again ... You probably heard I went away" Adams announces, and one could easily forget this was recorded 2007 and he's not referring to his brief hiatus from music after the Cardinology tour.  Adams seems to take a parting shot at Lost Highway, or the criticism he endured for releasing three albums in 2005: "So, it's one for every year / It's pitiful what I hold dear I throw away."  Please, Ryan, don't listen to the naysayers.  Keep doing what you love.

"Dear Candy" continues the story that began in Jacksonville City Nights' "Dear John," this time from John's perspective.  "Dear John" insinuated marital infidelity: "I knew what you were doing / That summer when Candy came around."  Finally, John gets to explain himself and rebuffs Candy: "This was all a fantasy of yours / This was just a dream you had / And I was never here."  Maybe John is in denial about his own transgressions.  Maybe he's an innocent victim of an obsessed stalker.  Either way, Adams hasn't shared a story this juicy since 29's "Carolina Rain."

John's defiance is replicated elsewhere, such as on "Lovely and Blue," a scornful word of warning to an ex-love's new man: "You're the one she thinks she wants / She thinks she wants the world / It's hers and you'll never get through."

As good as the III-half is, IV is where things start to get really interesting.  The band takes more chances with genre-switching and complex song structures, resulting in a more enjoyable experience.  "Numbers," with its singalong "We're fucked!" chorus, starts out as a New Pornographers-esque punk song before seamlessly shifting into a sweet, slow melody sung by Catherine Popper.  Likewise, "Icebreaker" dabbles in metal, until it surprises with a soaring, anthemic middle section.  "Sewers at the Bottom of the Wishing Well" fakes out the listener with an intro that sounds like well-worn Cardinals territory before erupting into a snarling rocker featuring one of the best lyrics on the record: "My heart isn't black / It's just dirty from the floor."  "Typecast," with its slide guitar and lovelorn subject matter, could have fit in nicely on Easy Tiger or Cardinology, although it's sequenced perfectly here.  And "P.S." is a slice of pure power pop goodness.

The highlight of IV, and perhaps the entire double album, is the lighthearted and charming "Star Wars," Adams' wish for a girl to love him as much as he loves Lucasfilm's epic space odyssey.

It really says something about the talent of Ryan Adams & the Cardinals that a bunch of their unreleased tracks from 2006/2007 comprise the best album of 2010.

III/IV is available in its entirety for streaming at PAX-AM.

3 Response to "Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, III/IV [2010]"

Jenny Says:

man, i should start my own music blog. my reviews are spot on!

friend Says:

this afternoon with u is something like a letter the kind that someone writes but never sends and whenu look at me like that i know someday its guna end and when u go i bet u miss ur friends as a breeze tugging hard up on the sails i been moving through these streets forever from baltimore from amsterdam these things inside me they repeat like broken records spinning pretty sometings behind my eyes and when i cant listen to old music i can sing perfectly inside my head and when u go im guna miss u all the time p.s. im addicted 2 the older music heartbreker,demolition,coldroses,gold ect. but this is truley fucking fantastic dear candy is my candys room on springsteen darkness album. by the way i agree great review

Post a Comment