Whiskeytown – Pneumonia

Pneumonia (2001)

B

1. The Ballad Of Carol Lynn 2. Don’t Wanna Know Why 3. Jacksonville Skyline 4. Reasons To Lie 5. Don’t Be Sad 6. Sit & Listen To The Rain 7. Under Your Breath 8. Mirror, Mirror 9. Paper Moon 10. What The Devil Wanted 11. Crazy About You 12. My Hometown 13. Easy Hearts 14. Bar Lights 15. To Be Evil

 

Did you know Strangers Almanac almost became the last thing Whiskeytown released? The band had lost their record contract sometime in 1999, and thus Pneumonia’s fate could’ve easily been the same as that of Forever Valentine and the myriad of other material the band recorded between late ’97 and ‘99. But then Adams’ solo debut Heartbreaker took off in a big way in the year 2000, and thus Lost Highway Records decided it would be a good idea to take this album, recorded in 1999, off the scrap pile and put it out to ride on Heartbreaker’s coattails. The band had broken up in the interim, so Pneumonia basically served as nothing more than a gravestone. However, as a result, we are now blessed with a neat trilogy of Whiskeytown albums. Two of them are pretty similar, and one of them isn’t. That one is this one.

I believe this is what critics are wont to call a “bold left turn.” You know, when a band breaks free of the shackles of stylistic pigeonholing and expectations and blows people’s minds with their rebelliousness by sounding different than they did before. Like when Metallica did that album with an orchestra. Or when Metallica sold out to MTV. Or when Metallica collaborated with Lou Reed. Or how sad it is that all of these things actually happened. Well, that’s sort of what Whiskeytown were going for here; busting out of the alt-country box and playing—gasp!—Beatles-esque pop! Eat shit, James Hetfield! Where’s your fake 1967 album-UH?

Now, as y’all know, I’m a rootsy-lovin’ dude, so I can sympathize with people who might treat such an overhaul as toxic to their earholes. However, I’m also a lover of great popcraft, so I have no problem in principle with a band using mellotrons and shit, even if that band used to deal in pedal steel licks and twang. But Pneumonia does sound a bit fish-out-of-water. Just like Faithless Street sounded to me like a bit of a put on, this album sounds like the result of Ryan hearing Wilco’s Summerteeth and saying to himself, “Hey! I should transition from alt-country to 60’s pop too! That’ll be great! Also, I’m gonna start taking a ton of drugs and have a stupid spiky emo hairstyle! Look out, world!” Indeed, the connection with Summerteeth is an easy one to make, but I don’t think Ryan’s immersion in the new form was quite as deep as Jeff Tweedy’s was around the same time. Because if you really take a close look at the songwriting here, it’s obvious that the new textures are mostly just grafted onto the same old Ryan Adams-sittin’-on-a-couch-with-a-guitar countryish strumalongs. That’s not universally the case, of course – “Mirror, Mirror” is total ’66 McCartney piano pop (sort of like a cross between “Good Day Sunshine” and “Got To Get You Into My Life”), and it’s fun and catchy as can be. The pleading soul-lite of “The Ballad Of Carol Lynn” is also maybe something a little different, and one song here where I feel like all the new elements just click – the sultry keyboards, the fake horns, the mewing vocals. It’s only when they try to get down with the “experimental” thing that the shit hits the fan – and it doesn’t help that their two attempts are this are sequenced adjacently right in the middle of the album, apparently in a totally successful attempt at completely wiping out any momentum the record had built up to that point. “Paper Moon” is valium-infused island music to sip mai tais to until your balls shrink to the point of ingrowth, and clocks in at an unconscionable 4:42. “What The Devil Wanted” is no better; I think it’s supposed to be a “scary” lullaby, which sort of says it all. These tracks also make it painfully clear how moronic and insipid Ryan’s lyrics can sometimes be: “I sleep a sleep/Of wounded sheep/That jump the fence/But are too weak.” What the fuck? Did he pick that one out of Shel Silverstein’s “Drunken and/or Senile Scribblings” pile or something?

Pneumonia’s instrumentation and production are rather slick; Caitlin Cary’s fiddle becomes a violin (that definition is all about context, ya know), and electric guitars are marginalized in favor of 60’s keyboard tones we’ve all heard plenty of times before. This can be attributed to collaborators 1) Ethan Johns, son of the legendary Glyn Johns, who produced the album, and 2) Ryan’s right hand man at this time, multi-instrumentalist Mike Daly, who co-wrote about half the songs here. Fortunately, behind all the dressings, the material is still strong (at least for a while). I guess it’s no surprise that my favorite songs here are the ones that sound most like Whiskeytown – the sentimental “Jacksonville Skyline” is up there with the best Ryan Adams songs, and I’m perhaps even more impressed with “Sit & Listen To The Rain,” to which I can draw a parallel from “Dancing With The Women At The Bar” in that they’re both furrowed brow country songs on which sounds like Ryan really means it. And while “Reasons To Lie” and “Under Your Breath” aren’t the best quiet, contemplative, introspective (or self-absorbed?) acoustic Ryan Adams songs that you’re liable to hear, I’ll take ‘em as worthy stabs at the form – precursors to Heartbreaker, perhaps. James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins plays guitar and co-writes the predictably cheery “Don’t Be Sad,” a factual tidbit that I do not care about at all. However, I do care that Tommy Stinson of the dearly departed Replacements apparently guests somewhere on here! I’d tell you where, but I don’t actually know where. And who says I should? What do I look like, Wikipedia?

The first eight songs here are entirely solid and melodic, but the album really loses me on the back half. The efforts to reestablish some legitimacy after the turds that clog up tracks 9 and 10 are mostly inadequate, commencing with MOR acoustic-electric rocker “Crazy About You” and the embarrassingly blatant Bruce Springsteen rip off “My Hometown” (no, not a cover. Just a rip off). Did they not notice that Ryan was singing in a very obvious approximation of Bruce’s weird fake hick accent? Or that the lyrics contained a bunch of strained “folksy” language a la Bruce? Or that Bruce also has a very fucking famous song called “My Hometown?” Was it supposed to be a parody? Or is it just a pathetically unimaginative attempt at “homage?” Well, you decide. I’m fair and balanced, and having just presented you with the clearly unbiased, objective facts, I shall refrain from further comment. In any case, the closing sequence isn’t brilliant either. The version of “Easy Hearts” on Forever Valentine proved that it’s a beautiful song, but here, it’s overproduced; “Bar Lights” is no more than decent, and the closing hidden track “To Be Evil” veers dangerously close to that dreaded “experimental” territory again and is thus probably the third shittiest song on the album. Or fourth, depending on how much the plagiarism of “My Hometown” bothers you.

I give the first half of this thing a B+ and the second half a high C+, so B sounds about right. It’s one of the weirder last albums I can think of in being such a departure from the band’s previous work without allowing them future opportunities to clarify/develop/redeem/reverse their new direction. Or to go in several directions at once – but I suppose that’s what Ryan Adams solo albums are there for.