Whiskeytown – Forever Valentine

Forever Valentine (Unreleased, rec. 1997)

A

1. Anyone But Me 2. Don’t Wanna Know Why 3. Easy Hearts 4. Sittin’ Around 5. Rays Of Burning Light 6. Ghost Without Memory 7. Runnin’ Out Of Road 8. Can’t Take A Lover 9. Think About Me 10. Crazy Lonesome 11. Caroline

 

Forever Valentine proves three things: 1) Ryan Adams is so inhumanly prolific that it would be simply impossible for him to actually release everything he records. As a result, he’s got at least as many concertedly compiled, pressing plant-ready albums that have never seen the light of day as he does released ones. And, curiously enough, likely due to some combination of record company squabbling and bad taste, many of his unreleased albums are quite a bit better than some of the shit he’s actually put out. 2) The best Ryan Adams albums are often the shortest ones. He doesn’t seem to realize that just because he wrote 60 songs last week doesn’t mean he has to put 30 of them on his next album. He could pick the best ones, cut out the filler, and have a really good 11-track album instead of a 75-minute one unnecessarily chock full of samey mediocrity. He could, but he doesn’t. Dick. 3) Whoever decided that Forever Valentine was a good name for a rock ‘n roll record is either stupid or had been watching too much Lifetime. I can only hope that if the album had actually come out they would’ve changed it to something more manly and cool, like Domestic Abuse or Syphilis.

So anyway, in one of his legendary hissy fits, Ryan fired the entire band except for Caitlin Cary after the Strangers Almanac tour, but gathered some new compadres, including guitarist Brad Rice, later of Son Volt and, uh, Keith Urban’s band, to lay down some new tracks in December 1997 without the record company knowing. The result is something of a missing link between the traditional alt-country sound of Strangers Almanac and the pop persuasion of Pneumonia – and darn it all if it isn’t the best Whiskeytown album by some distance. Now, the version I have is in obvious need of mastering, so the mix is a bit flat and lacking in dynamics. But, with that considered, the sound quality is actually pretty good. And besides – melodies this strong come through clear as day no matter what the mix sounds like.

Indeed, the fact that the album was a result of loose, largely live sessions with minimal overdubs just like Faithless Street was, but is heaping gobs better than that old No Depression magazine subscriber favorite, can be attributed to the fact that Ryan and co. put forth the very best set of melodies they had available to them at this point in time. Ryan is often content to whimper along to some acoustic guitar and call it a song (and lord knows he can pull it off when he puts in enough effort – see Heartbreaker), but every song here sports an eminently singalongable vocal melody, which goes a hell of long way toward making his sad puppy emotionality oodles more bearable than usual. Even the quieter acoustic songs (“Sittin’ Around,” “Ghost Without Memory”) will stick in your head. The improvement in songwriting craft is obvious – for instance, “Anyone But Me” is based on the same loping, strumalong country-rock rhythm that marked the duller portions of Strangers Almanac, but soon reveals itself to be an oh-so-sweet sounding orgy of multi-part harmonies that seems well outside of the Wandscher-era band’s range.

There aren’t a lot of doldrums to be found here – the band is moving toward, at least, some sort of awareness of a pop influence, and thus this album has a much brighter feel to it than Almanac (see the very Wilco-y “Can’t Take A Lover.” I see, Ryan, you shrewd motherfucker, since Jeff Tweedy had become more popular than Jay Farrar by 1997, you changed your mind about who you’d rather sound like, eh?). But while Pneumonia would take that aspect of their sound and turn it into something rather glossy, Forever Valentine manages to be the best of both worlds by incorporating catchy melodies while maintaining an alt-country edge. In a clear demonstration of this, two Pneumonia songs appear here in vastly superior early versions. An intimately rendered “Easy Hearts” clearly reveals what a heartbreakingly beautiful song it is, and while we already knew “Don’t Wanna Know Why” was a great pop song, this version, unlike on Pneumonia, is all guitars, and thus has some real muscle to it. And speaking of guitars, Brad Rice represents a significant upgrade in the lead guitar department over Phil Wandscher, who often seemed either hesitant or incapable of really letting loose. Rice, on the other hand, can really wail when he wants to (check out his solo on the sing-songy “Think About Me,” a Strangers Almanac outtake that might just be the best song on here, even if its hook line is in direct contradiction of many of the assholish things Ryan Adams has done over the course of his career, which make it explicitly clear that he does, in fact, care very much what people think about him). He can certainly cover more stylistic ground than his predecessor, from the pop to the country to the ballads, all of which are well represented on Forever Valentine. They even pull off one full-on rock song with screaming guitars and everything. When Ryan tries to RAWK OUT, he almost always sucks the big one (need I direct you to his pitiful 2003 album Rock N Roll?), but “Rays Of Burning Light” is damn good – quite likely his best ever straight ahead rocker. But that don’t mean he’s forgotten how to write a mean country song – check out the rollicking “Runnin’ Out Of Road” or “Crazy Lonesome,” which probably took less time to write than the two and a half minutes it takes to play but I love the snot out of anyway. Don’t tell me it’s a throwaway – stupid/brilliant lines like “Well I’ve been treating everyone like I’m an asshole/And I’ve been treating myself to beer and wine” don’t write themselves, you know!

So start scouring the internet for this one, say I. And for god’s sake, come up with a better name for it. Any suggestions for one? Leave a comment! Because it would be nice to get a comment that wasn’t from a Russian spambot for once.



One Comment

  1. Emily wrote:

    Or your girlfriend.

    I don’t know, Forever Valentine definitely sounds like the kind of douchey name Ryan Adams would give to one of his records, don’t you think?