(Friday, September 28, 2020)
On two anticipated albums, Ryan Adams and the Strokes offer a little bit of country and a little bit of rock & roll.
by David Browne
The day after anyone's worst nightmarish fantasy of terrorism occurred, I took a long walk around New York City, where I live and work. I was many blocks from the devastation, and life, albeit a more subdued form of it, was carrying on in the supermarkets and bistros, on the sidewalks, and in traffic tie-ups. Making the experience even more surreal, I was listening to a copy of Ryan Adams’ Gold, one of the two albums intended for coverage in this space. After all there was work to do.
Up until that point, Adams' album, one of the most buzzed about this year, had left me mildly indifferent. The former member of the alt-country band Whiskeytown has a strong sense of songcrafting, but his bland rasp wasn't very commanding, and the arrangements never met a roots-rock cliché they didn't like. But on that day I hit "play" without thinking, and on came the opener, "New York, New York" I had heard it several times already, this song teeming with images of a throbbing, ramshackle city and of someone muddling his way through it and a failed relationship; at the end, he leaves town. But now the tune sounded different. The robust Who-style power chords felt energizing. And then there was the chorus’ recurring line-"Hell, I still love you, New York"- which said everything about finding a reason to stay.
With music, context can be everything, and I can't think of a better example. Heard in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center, "New York, New York" now feels cathartic and in healing ways it never did before. The same is true of the rest of Gold. In light of this recent horror, the album's spawning tour through American music, from coast to beer-stained coast, is like a dinner full of comfort food. Its songs encompass melancholic country-folk ("When the Stars Go Blue" and "Harder Now that It's Over" are two highlights), jejune boogie ("Tina Toledo's Street Walkin' Blues"), folk gospel ("The Rescue Blues"), and singer-songwriter brooding ("Sylvia Plath"). For me, the familiarity of the genre and its presentation became a blanket to curl up under. And Adams, for all the hand-me-down nature of his music and his degenerate-rebel image, sounds like a healer.
In the same period, I was also absorbing the Stroke's Is This It, the first album by some New York mopheads who just a year ago bashing out variations on pre-alternative alternative music (Velvet Underground, garage rock, and so on) in clubs. Like Adams, they've been the talk of the industry since vaulting from obscurity to the center of a major-label bidding war in a matter of months. Is This It bows down before all the trademarks of pre-1977 rock: off-kilter guitar solos, half-buried vocals (a la "Louie, Louie"), attitude-heavy slurring (by singer Julian Casablancas), primitive tom-tom rhythms (shades of the Velvets' Moe Tucker), and the raw, muddy sonics of garage-band 45s.
All of which would be unbearably derivative and somewhat ridiculous in 2001 if it weren’t for two things. First, consider the energy that the Strokes apply to these hallmarks. They may recall another era, but there's nothing polite or retro about them. Their punching-bag songs ("Someday," "Take It or Leave It") over come the muddy, low-budget production. Clocking in at a little over a half hour (talk about old school…), Is This It flies by in a blur of sooty grit and grind.
Secondly, the Strokes' music may be aggressive and grainy, but it's not
nihilistic like rap metal; as such, it seemed like constructive accompaniment to
the ongoing television footage of fires, body bags, twisted metal, and mangled
landscapes. While listening to the Strokes, I found myself flashing back to
Britney Spears' dances-with-snakes performance at the MTV Video Music Awards the
week before-so symbolic of the over-the–top pop of the last few years, and now
so absurdly incongruous. I don't know if Adams or the Strokes are the future of
anything, or if such hype even matters at this point. But at the moment, they
just feel right, and sometimes that’s enough.
Is This It: A-, Gold: B+