Whiskeytown – Faithless Street

Faithless Street (1998 Reissue)

B

1. Midway Park 2. Drank Like A River 3. Too Drunk To Dream 4. Tennessee Square 5. What May Seem Like Love 6. Faithless Street 7. Mining Town 8. If He Can’t Have You 9. Black Arrow, Bleeding Heart 10. Matrimony 11. Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight 12. Desperate Ain’t Lonely 13. Hard Luck Story 14. Top Dollar 15. Lo-Fi Tennessee Mountain Angel 16. Revenge 17. Empty Baseball Park 18. Here’s To The Rest Of The World 19. 16 Days 20. Yesterday’s News 21. Factory Girl

 

I think if the times and tribulations of George Lucas have proven anything, it’s that art sometimes has to be protected from its creator. There’s a great South Park episode about that. Hey, if you wanna put in a bunch of CGI banthas walking around in the background of a scene for no reason or have fucking Hayden Christiansen appear at the end of Return Of The Jedi, then go for it; we can all have a good laugh at your stupidity. But to not have the original versions available in any form… well, that’s like changing history.

The 1998 reissue of the first Whiskeytown album, Faithless Street, is sort of an interesting Star Wars Special Editions-esque case. I’m not sure how scintillating a topic this is to anyone besides me, but I’m not sure how much precedent there is in music for the kind of rejiggering that this album underwent. Bands reissue their albums with bonus tracks all the time, but that usually happens years after the album originally came out, and all the bonus tracks come at the end of the original running order. This is not the case with Faithless Street. It was originally released in 1995 on Mood Food Records with a 13-track running order, but Ryan was unhappy with the version that came out – I guess because it didn’t have enough songs on it? Anyway, he managed to acquire the rights to the master tapes and put together a new running order, which includes a great number of loosely termed “bonus tracks,” for release in 1998 after the band signed with Geffen. Subsequently, the reissue version has become the only form in which the album is commercially available. Now, I’ve never heard or seen anyone claim that this isn’t the definitive version of album, and maybe all the extra tracks do make it better. But, come on, is a 21-track, 67-minute iteration of the record really representative of a young alt-country band’s debut album? Or an idealized version of what a megalomaniacal Ryan Adams wished the album was? Like, are all the new songs bonus tracks? Or just new parts of the album? I can’t tell, because although a bunch of them come right in a row at the end, a few of them are integrated into the original running order. And a few of them are early versions of songs that would end up on Strangers Almanac! They don’t belong here! Hear that, you goddamn Mexicans? You don’t belong here, and you can git out!

(Except for the ones who clean my pool at my $50 million beach house. Oh, and the ones who pick fruit for slave wages in outrageous conditions for my agricultural empire. You guys can stay).

However, I mostly get the feeling that all the extra songs don’t dramatically impede or boost the proceedings so much as accentuate certain qualities that the album already possessed. Surely, the record’s personality was the same in 1995 as it is now – that being a samey mass of competently performed, well-written alt-country songs that very rarely fluctuate above or below the “solid” quality range. There’s some straight country, a bit of mid-tempo rock, a few sparse acoustic songs, a couple of shitkickers, a few moments of sheer brilliance, and a couple of stinkers, but all in all there aren’t a whole lot of surprises. Whiskeytown, at this point in time, sounds like a band so young and so new that they’re still very much searching for their groove and for an individual identity, and as a result they’re trying out some things that they’re not necessarily ready to sound unique with. There are plenty of fake Southern accents to go around, and there’s at least one song here that’s basically a parody of country music in general, with a laundry list lyrics sheet of clichés about truck stops and little babies (“Hard Luck Story”). That’s the only song here like that, but I just can’t shake the feeling that these guys are playing the part just a bit. Uncle Tupelo were punks feigning country-style sincerity, but sounded genuine… Whiskeytown don’t always achieve the same.

Fortunately, it’s clear right from the start that Ryan Adams is a huge, if obviously still developing, songwriting talent, and can wring plenty of emotion out of three chords. The country weeper “Faithless Street” depicts the same sort of washed out character that all alt-country songwriters spend so much time ruminating on, but the twist comes when we realize that the character might actually be the songwriter himself: “So I started this damn country band/Cause punk rock is too hard to sing.” I can empathize with this guy big time, and that’s a practice that would get harder and harder to keep as Ryan’s career went along. It’s not like there’s any really brilliant pathos here anyway, but I’m fine with him singing about beer and chicks, even if, like I said, he doesn’t always sound like he’s really livin’ it like Ben Nichols or Brent Best do. “Too Drunk To Dream” is another great country tune with plenty of tasty pedal steel licks, and “Drank Like A River” is a mighty fine up-tempo rocker. They go to the rock song well only sparingly and, at least until the appearance of a couple of slightly riff-deficient barnburners near the end, effectively; the drifting, angsty opener “Midway Park” sets up the small town scenery that most of this album takes place in beautifully, while “If He Can’t Have You” lacks its mandolin line but adds a solid chorus instead. So, thanks to Ryan’s songwriting, the only times when true genericism is approached are when Phil Wandscher takes his turns at the mic. “What May Seem Like Love,” “Top Dollar” and others aren’t bad… they’re just kinda there. And there’s already plenty of there here, if you axe me. Unless over an hour of one-take strummin’ and pickin’ ain’t enough for ya. On the other hand, Caitlin Cary manages to charm the bejesus out of me with her feminist lament “Matrimony.” And she even succeeds in sounding like a sweet but spunky country girl where Ryan fails in convincing me that he really is a beer-guzzling hick.

So, the extra tracks. Some of them are great (“Tennessee Square”), some of them are just OK. “Desperate Ain’t Lonely” doesn’t do a whole lot that similar acoustic tracks like “Mining Town” and “Black Arrow, Bleeding Heart” don’t, but it’s good. The laid back early version of Strangers Almanac’s “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight” is better, but it does sort of bother me that I’ll be listening to the first Whiskeytown album and then suddenly a song from the second Whiskeytown album comes on. It’s like traveling into the future! But hell, I guess I don’t mind. On the other hand, the inclusion of the last five tracks was a huge blunder. They come from something called the “Baseball Park Sessions,” which clearly have nothing to do with the Faithless Street sessions because the songs sound nothing like the rest of the album and seem wildly out of place. Besides, three of them suck and two of them are, annoyingly, yet more early versions of Strangers Almanac songs. Was this supposed to be the “bonus track” section? Might’ve helped to differentiate… as is, it’s hard to tell which parts are The Phantom Menace and which parts are A New Hope. But I do know this: I can’t think of a funny joke right now and I gotta go to bed, so I’d say that about does it for this review.