Tag Archives: 2003

1984 by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams is a super-talented artist whose music always feels a bit like homework to me. I recognize that Adams is super-talented, probably a genius even…but listening to most of his albums always feels like work. And just like that dog-eared copy of Infinite Jest I keep trying to read, I never throw the towel in completely with Adams because intellectually I know I should love his music. He’s ferocious, highly literate, and sincere to a fault–all qualities I respect in an artist. So what’s my problem with him? I think the problem might be tempo. I love when Adams gets loud.

In 2003, Ryan Adams knocked my socks off with him solo album ROCK ‘N ROLL. A joyous, unabashed love letter to the gritty rock albums that Adams (and me) grew up listening to, ROCK ‘N ROLL was largely ignored by the press and music fans in general. But I connected with this record in a big, big way. This is the album that convinced me that I had something in common with Adams, whom I’d otherwise considered to be a bit on the stuffy side. It seems as though with Adams the less he tries, the more I dig his music.

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ROCK ‘N ROLL always felt as though it was a bit of a “goof” and not something Adams would repeat. Apparently the album was recorded after his label rejected his album LOVE IS HELL for not being commercial enough. ROCK ‘N ROLL was recorded to fulfill contractual obligation, a blatant attempt to create something modern rock fans would approve of but ended up biting Adams in the ass. ROCK ‘N ROLL wasn’t a smash success.  But when LOVE IS HELL eventually came out, it’s darker more indie-rock focus garnered Adams immense critical praise. I’ve always thought that this rejection of ROCK ‘N ROLL and the praise LOVE IS HELL received served as a watershed moment for Adams. This was the moment when his fate was sealed and a his status as an indie rock troubadour was cemented for good.  I never thought he’d put out another dirty and gritty rock album. And for the most part, I was correct…however last August he did release a very fine 11 song EP titled simply 1984.

1984. The title tips Adams hand, this (very short) collection of songs is an even bigger homage to the hard edge rock bands of yesterday. Clocking in at 14 minutes, the songs fly by and bleed together in an angry torrent of slightly fuzzy guitars and reverbed soaked vocals. This is 100% nostalgia, pure and simple. Anyone expecting a thoughtful, contemplative indie rock album should look elsewhere. 1984 is hard charging and visceral. All the tracks seem hurriedly dashed off, never quite lazy but with a sort of “fuck it” vibe. The snarly vocals and primal guitars reminded me of very early Replacements, a band who always got to the point simply and quickly.

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1884 is wall-to-wall badassery. That old cliché “don’t bore us/get to the chorus” is in full effect here, with nearly all the song existing as fast guitars and million dollar choruses. “When The Summer Ends” has an almost Ramones-esque level of beautiful, brutal simplicity. Essentially the song is a just a vocal hook and sloppy guitar riff repeated over and over. This sort of thing should be annoying or stupid or come across as sloppy, but Adams is clearly putting his heart into this music and it shows. The tracks minute and forty-eight second run time also prevents the song from overstaying its welcome or becoming tiresome.

In fact, all of the songs on 1984 tumble out quickly, as though Adams is afraid he won’t remember them or he’ll run out of tape. This gives the EP a kinetic, some might even say exhausting quality. The best song, the true diamond in the rough is “Change Your Mind.” Full of both angst and yearning, the song is a quick minute and a half that captures the beautiful futility of a love that cannot be: “If I could change it, I’d change your mind.” Sometimes an aggressive power chord and a clever line shouted over the noise says more than a thousand carefully crafted lines. That’s 1984.

I also really love the loopy guitar that opens “Wolves” a song that sounds like something The Strokes would have recorded circa 2001. And the somewhat quieter ballad “Look in the Mirror” closes 1984 in a surprisingly restrained note.

Finishing up the EP, one gets the distinct feeling they’ve just finished hearing a bunch of really kickass demos.  Like flipping through a painters sketch book, you get the feeling Adams could really flesh these songs out and make an incredible album. Instead, these songs exist as brief glimpses of the past where Adams was young and angry. There’s a time to think and there’s a time to damn the torpedoes and charge ahead—1984 is very much a head-down, ballsy charge. Take fifteen minutes out of your day and listen to 1984. Enjoy the nostalgia.

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Everybody Drowns Sad And Lonely: I *Heart* Beulah

Other than Nirvana, I can’t think of another band besides Beulah that makes being depressed sound like so much fun. The sunny, wistful sound Beulah made in their very short life as a band still haunts me to this day. I discovered Beulah back in early 2002 while on a lunch break. The band had released their album THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR in September 2001 (yes, it came out on 9/11) and the music magazine I was reading had the album prominently placed on several of the staff’s best of the year lists.

At the time, I was really into The Apples In Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel, bands who had formed this weird collective called The Elephant 6 Recording Company. This collective was really just a group of music nerds that revered pop music of the 1960s, specifically The Beach Boys. The whole thing was out of Denver, Colorado, which I find a bit amusing, as this is where I now live.

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Anyway, The Elephant 6 Recording Company had a lot of mystical sway with my early 20-something mind. When I saw Beulah’s album THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR show up on a bunch of “Best of 2001” lists I was mildly curious. When a more than one review mentioned the Beatles/Beach Boys-like quality to their songs, I was intrigued. But when I found out that they were part of the Elephant 6 I knew I had no choice but to get their album.

It wasn’t just me that took notice of the band, THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR is/was the band’s biggest album. This is thanks to the album’s slicker, more refined production and an abnormal (for modern indie pop) use of horns. Ah, the horns. The horns add an extra layer of sweet icing to songs laced with bile and bitterness.

Beulah, at first blush, lulls the listener with golden harmonies and the sunny melodies. But all that sweet sound belies the dark, murky complexity of singer-songwriter Mike Kurosky’s lyrics. Rife with Brian Wilsonian-angst and anxiety, Kuroksy always seems to be on the verge of cutting the poetic bullshit and telling us how he really feels. But he never really does. Instead, we get gorgeous hook-filled pop gems. Gorgeous pop gems that raise an eyebrow and give the listener pause as they wonder: is this song really about…that? Holy shit, that’s kinda fucked up. The best part is that these bright, shining songs with such dark undertones also stick inside your head for weeks upon end.

When I get to California  Gonna write my name in the sand  I'm gonna lay this body down  And watch the waves roll in

When I get to California
Gonna write my name in the sand
I’m gonna lay this body down
And watch the waves roll in

Of course THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR’S most well known song is the most straightforward: “Popular Mechanics for Lovers.” You’ve heard it, even if you’re not aware that you’ve heard it. About a year after THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR was released the song was ubiquitous, appearing on the soundtracks of many sappy TV shows and in at least one car commercial. I often wonder how many of those ad/TV executives took the time to really listen to the lyrics. There is a lot of dark shit in “Popular Mechanics for Lovers.”

Such as:

 “Just because he loves you too

He would never take a bullet for you

Don’t believe a word he says

He would never cut his heart out for you”

 THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR can only be described as a sublime musical experience. I still get goose bumps when listening to “What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?” The song compares a slide into inevitable depression to the end of summer vacation. All the drugs, all the women, all the smiles don’t mean anything once the darkness comes. Kurosky is telling this to someone but the uncomfortable reality is that he’s telling this to himself. He’s telling this to us:

“Will you be alright when you’re in the shade?

Tell me tell me you’ll be alright

When you start to fade

Have you heard?

The days are getting shorter

And what will you do when your suntan is fading and the summer’s gone?

Do you feel afraid?”

My favorite track on the album is the staggeringly awesome “Gene Autry.” An epic, rambling song, “Gene Autry” is both about the legendary singing cowboy and also about the ugly beauty and promise that is California. A land of milk and honey, but also one full of loneliness and hopelessness. The chorus of this song is: “That the city spreads out, just like a cut vein, everybody drowns, sad and lonely.” Every time I hear “Gene Autry” the song punches me in the guts. I’m amazed that something so unbearably sad can make me feel so exhilaratingly happy.

I like to think that my feelings of despair are driven away by the fact that I recognize a lot of my own personal hang-ups and sorrow in Beulah’s music. The band doesn’t sing about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band they are Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band! But the more likely source of my euphoria is really just the result of the band’s upbeat delivery and extreme musical craftsmanship. Oppressive sadness extends into Beulah’s other albums, but it’s never quite as bright and shiny as it is on THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR. And while it’s not my favorite album of theirs (that would be YOKO, the 2003 album that broke them up), THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR is my favorite Beulah album to be sad with.

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