Sunday, December 14, 2014

Alvvays, by Alvvays (Album of the Week)

You can’t dislike Alvvays.  You can ignore them if you like, but the fun, catchy pop found on this debut album is simply appealing.  If you don’t like Alvvays, there’s something wrong with you.

This album sounds like something from the past.  Other reviewers point to C86 and early REM.  I had to spend a little time on Wikipedia to find out what C86 was, and it turns out to be a cassette tape released by the British music magazine New Musical Express (NME) in 1986.  The cassette is credited with promoting “a guitar-based musical genre characterized by jangling guitars and melodic power pop song structures.”  If you already knew that, you’re hipper than I am.  If not, then I’ve made you marginally more hip, which, when you consider the source, must be mighty depressing.

Fortunately, this album is an upbeat antidote to that kind of brooding.  To me, it has a mid-70s sound with tambourines, electric guitars and a girlish voice.  On first listen, it reminds me of the Cowsills, the Partridge Family and, perhaps inspired by the second song on the album, the Archies.  This is pre-grunge, sparkling pure pop.

That second song, “Archie, Marry Me” is the centerpiece of the album.  Clever, catchy, self-confident and just a tiny bit edgy, it defines the approach taken by Alvvays throughout the album.  It includes sonic references to the early-70s pop world beyond the name “Archie” – including a few “Hey, hey’s” that you will likely follow with “Paula”, if you recall the old song.

But this is not just a sweet homage to pop songs of the past.  It’s hard to describe, but there is a bit of an edge to lead-singer’s Molly Rankin’s voice – a maturity that makes you take these sugar-dipped songs just a bit more seriously.  “The Agency Group” moves a bit past adoring toward stalking.  “Next of Kin” makes an accidental drowning sound like a fun surf song.

As I said at the beginning, you can’t dislike Alvvays, but it’s hard to imagine truly loving this album.  It’s a glossy surface with a few hints that there could be some really great stuff coming.  In this, their first album, Alvvays has set up a great, pretty sound, but they haven’t put much grit or soul into it.  I’m hopeful that the next album will be a bit less pretty and a lot more interesting.

Robin came up with a good description of how it feels to listen to this album: "The whole album is like peeking in a girl's diary.  Lot's of wistfully trying to figure out what is going on in the boy's head, wanting it to last, wanting it to start."

Next Up:  Things are going to be busy in the Ryan household for the rest of the year, so our next entry will be a ranking of what we've loved listening to this year.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Ryan Adams, by Ryan Adams (Album of the Week)

If you filled a room with great songwriters, you might not notice Ryan Adams, but he’d be in there, crowded by Elton John and his grand piano, the 6 or 7 Bob Dylan personalities, and Kanye’s entourage.  He’d be over in the corner, trading lyrics and passing an acoustic guitar around with Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen. 

I have no idea why Ryan Adams waited for his 14th album to go eponymous, but he starts it with a song entitled “Give Me Something Good”, with the opening lyrics “I can't talk/My mind is so blank/So I'm going for a walk/I got nothing left to say.”

The lack of something to say haunts the album, until it winds up being its strength.  In the third song, a moody number named “Trouble”, he admits, “Sometimes I just got nothing else to say/I’ve been on repeat since yesterday.”  Toward the end of the album, in “I Just Might”, he contemplates fleeing a dissolving relationship:  “You make a wish, You want it to come true/But somewhere underneath all that hope/Is the truth Your prayers go unanswered./You’re waiting for the proof/Don’t know what to say/Don’t know what to do.”

Ryan Adams is not a troubadour offering answers to your questions, or your prayers.  The younger Ryan Adams offered more solace – whether it was one day being carried home to Kentucky and family in “Oh My Sweet Carolina” on Heartbreaker or even just replacing “Tears of Gold” with music and laughter on Easy Tiger. 

This album is the product of a man too wise and wizened to offer pat answers – that’s gone for him.  In Trouble, he acknowledges the toll that aging is taking – “There’s a year and a day for every line/On my face/Like a map of my sins.” 

Is it going too far to interpret “Feels Like Fire” as a portrayal of the loss of faith in bigger answers?  Is he singing of the fire of faith, as in the burning bush and the Pentecostal fire instead of some lost lover, when he sings, “You can take me anywhere/Roll us into heaven/I don’t care/Just so you know,/You’ll always be the hardest thing/I ever will let go/Driving past your church/And all the houses in a row/The feeling in my chest is fire”?

I’ll shut up about all that heavy shit now, and focus on selling this album to you, because this is not some graduate seminar on “Being and Nothingness”.  I know, it’s only rock and roll, and I like it. 

The first 20 seconds of this album ought to blow you away.  You’ve got a keyboard stringing out a high note over a crunchy guitar, and then a drum thumps onto the scene, and the bass sneaks in to add some depth.  Suddenly, you’re bobbing your head to a rhythm that is part blues, part funk, and 100% classic rock like Tom Petty or the Eagles might have used to launch “Breakdown” or “Witchy Woman”.

There’s so much more to follow.  “Kim” could come from Fleetwood Mac or Bruce Cockburn.  “Trouble” starts off with a guitar lick that Neil Young would love.  “Am I Safe” will call to mind “Horse With No Name” by America, but it’s 100 times better.  And, yes, “Be My Wrecking Ball” gives you what you wanted when you bought this album – that classic Ryan Adams sound that could have come off any of his earlier solo albums. 

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin's love of guitars shows through in her appreciation of the mastery shown on the album, but she can't get past her disturbing hatred of the Eagles, so she muddles her way to a middling review of this great album.  

For Ryan Adams to finally put his name on an album, it had to be something personal and special.  You can hear lots of other influences on this disc, but it reflects Ryan Adams standing there, with a guitar, doing his best.  And Ryan Adams, at his best, belongs in a room with the greats of all time.

Next up:  Alvvays, by Alvvays