Ryan Adams and the Cardinals: Cardinology
What goes through an artists head as they compose a song? I often wonder this as I listen to music from different bands. It isn’t hard to see and/or hear different phases of the same band. It started with the Beatles and their Revolver record and that break from their obligatory sound and it continues today. Ryan Adams is someone who has consistently put out music that falls into neat little categories of his career, and his latest “Cardinology” is no exception. He has arrived as a full blown, grizzled rocker with a drug riddled past. This is a man who at the ripe old age of 34 has already been through a lifetime of musical phases. He is clearly comfortable with where he is now. Clean and sober most certainly agree with him and his backing band the Cardinals.
How to describe this record in a few words? Mellow. Worn-in. Warm. Inviting. No he didn’t compose a slipper. Instead he has managed to produce a record that almost immediately draws the listener in to a world of harmonies, easy rhythms and just enough edginess. The opening riff and the perfect placement of slide guitar on “Born Into a Light” echoes work he did on several earlier records. There’s the hook. “OK, I like this.” Then the heavy guitar kicks in on “Go Easy” and there is no turning back. What year is this again?
“Magick” is one of the songs that could turn out to be a minor hit for Adams. It has been getting some consistent rotation on some of the alternative stations (it was also designated as the Rolling Stone Magazine “Song of the Day” on November 3) as it does have a bit of bite, but I actually find the tune to be one of the weaker and possibly even annoying songs on the record. The sound somehow feels constrained and even predictable.
“Cobwebs” is one of the stronger songs on the disc, yet why that is I can’t exactly quantify. I make no secret to the fact I enjoy the music of Ryan Adams. It’s possible that I find this song so compelling because it takes bits and pieces of several different Ryan Adams songs and then puts them together into something fresh and original. Is it possible to pay homage to yourself?
The groovy electric guitar work and the soothing vocals sound like they could be at home on any one of a dozen different K-Tell “Best of” records from the 1970’s. The Gram Parsons influence is certainly evident. Be careful, you may find yourself smiling as some of these songs play out. Just as I smiled the first time I heard “The Shadowlands (off of his fine “Love is Hell” record),” I found myself doing the same thing the first time I heard the guitar solo of “Like Yesterday.”
While Adams is often credited with being a gifted song writer, one thing that should not be overlooked is the fine vocal performance he delivers here. He can go from somber melancholy to falsetto to garage rock. As his voice bounces around the capable back-up singing, it just sounds right.
The simple fact remains that Adams has entered a stage of his career where a heavy handed editor is his best friend. We know he can put out quality music. In the end what will separate him from a handful of other gifted musicians is by consistently putting out quality records, not records with glimpses of genius mixed in with a smattering of tripe. Adams is comfortably in his Gram Parsons phase. Will a duet with Emmylou Harris be next? Who knows? But what I do know is that Adams and the Cardinals have put out as solid of a record as any other artist this year. It aint perfect, but then again there are only so many “Neverminds” or “Exile on Main Streets” out there. This record is for the die hard as well as the new listener. Give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.