Whiskeytown – Strangers Almanac

Strangers Almanac (1997)

B+

1. Inn Town 2. Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight 3. Yesterday’s News 4. 16 Days 5. Everything I Do 6. Houses On The Hill 7. Turn Around 8. Dancing With The Women At The Bar 9. Waiting To Derail 10. Avenues 11. Losering 12. Somebody Remembers The Rose 13. Not Home Anymore

 

Altogether more focused, ambitious, eclectic and, above all, better than the debut. But even if the steps forward the band makes here are obvious, not all the problems Faithless Street had have quite dissipated yet. It’s still too goddamned long, for one. The bad pun “Inn Town” sets the precedent right at the beginning – it starts off with some pretty acoustic picking, that trusty Caitlin Cary fiddle, a bit of light lead guitar and some simple harmonies… with all these familiar components (plus some Nicky Hopkins-ish piano twinkling away in the background), the song manages to establish a far greater sense of atmosphere and layering than any of the largely first take cuts on Faithless Street did. But then it keeps going and going and, being mostly two chords going back and forth, does nothing to justify its near 6-minute running time. For a band with a limited stylistic range and even more limited chops, they do this needlessly stretching out songs thing a few too many times on this album, reaching a nadir with closer “Not Home Anymore,” which I think may have been a bizarre attempt to sound like Reckoning-era R.E.M. but ultimately just comes across as endless and incredibly boring. I find myself far more drawn to some of what most would consider this album’s relative filler like the tender “Somebody Remembers The Rose” or the college dorm room strummer “Avenues” because, especially when stacked up next to “Not Home Anymore” and “Inn Town” and “Turn Around,” they’re short, sweet and to the point. Naw, Whiskeytown was still too inexperienced to make for a convincing jam band – or, for that matter, to completely transcend their influences, as evidenced by the understated Springsteenisms of “Houses On The Hill,” which is actually quite good, or the reemerging Jay Farrar obsession that marks the underwritten “Losering.”

But those are just the nasty parts that come out if you look at the album in the wrong light. Good lighting is everything. And in good lighting, although it’s obvious that this is obviously a band still very much finding their way, Strangers Almanac is rightly remembered as The Leap – the moment when Whiskeytown, and Ryan Adams in particular, went from having potential and promise to being able to deliver the goods right now, if only intermittently, in a big time way. This can be largely attributed to the fact that Ryan clearly decided he now wanted to be taken Seriously as a Serious Songwriter – no more of that letting other people sing songs shit. He wanted to play with the big boys and be seen as worthy inheritor of the alt-country torch (and managed to rope in Alejandro Escovedo to sing a verse of “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight” in order to prove his point). Thus, the album lives and dies with his voice and his songs, and, quite often he comes up big. Start off with Whiskeytown’s “greatest hit,” “16 Days,” one of the seminal songs of the alt-country genre and one of the catchiest Ryan Adams songs ever. At this stage of his career, he didn’t always sound like he was completely sold on the idea of this thing called a “chorus,” but the “Ghost has got me running” bit here is just dandy. And with “Dancing With The Women At The Bar,” he temporarily overcomes his sincerity issue… it’s a dejected, brooding, after-hours country song that actually does give me the sense that he wrote it after finding himself slumped over a bar at 3 AM. He also squeezes out a modicum of eclecticism with a fine slab of Replacements-esque rock (“Yesterday’s News”) and a bit of soul balladeering (“Everything I Do”). Trying not to be hewn in by strict alt-country audience expectations, eh? Welcome to the club.

Overall, Strangers Almanac is still uneven, still in need of maturation… but the peaks are getting higher and the appeal is beginning to lie in the results rather than the future potential.

Oh, and A-Rod sucks.