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So Alive

Ryan Adams
Rock N Roll (Lost Highway)

Ryan Adams makes me crazy. With each disc I decide I can’t stand him, then succumb to the record in spite of myself.

With his new release, Rock N Roll, Adams has moved further from Heartbreaker and his early work with Whiskeytown: He finally rocks, and it’s about bloody time. The hooks still soar and the melodies plead, but this is bolder and more fun than his previous efforts, and is certainly less sad, cranky and self-righteous.

The album rockets out of the gate with the feverish “This Is It,” a declaration of arrival at rock-&-roll cool. His first words, “Let me sing a song for you/That’s never been sung before,” are right—this is not like his other songs or albums.

It’s true that Adams works very hard to look like a rocker, but until now he’s not had much to go on except a big mouth, stories of substance abuse and simply trying too hard. And for Rock N Roll, he shamelessly stole from influences—and consciously referenced bands—ranging from T. Rex to Joy Division. It is, however, hard to tell if this is cheeky larceny, an attempt at outdoing his light-fingered peers, or homage.

The first single, “So Alive,” is perfect early U2 (when Bono still had a soul), matched with melodies ripped from the Smiths, all tied up with a weird honky-tonk piano outro. Since the first track on Heartbreaker, “Argument With David Rawlings (Concerning Morrissey),” we knew he had his Morrissey chops, and here he proves it. Actually, his two new gloom opuses, Love Is Hell Part I and Part II, are apparently where he gets his Moz on for real, but that’s another review. This sound is reprised on the more subdued “Anybody Want to Take Me Home.”

And as proof that he’s ready to let loose, you’ll find actual feedback on songs like “Note to Self: Don’t Die,” which blazes with sludgy low-end guitars and grizzly vocals. A few albums ago, a song with that title might have just moped about suicide, but not here.

Oddly, the record’s title track is a somber piano song of rocker burnout, self-doubt and the familiar theme of lovelorn depression. It’s also here that he tries to channel the Replacements’ “Answering Machine” by looping what sounds like a message saying “I miss my best friend.” The song is decent, but its inclusion seems cheaply ironic, and the emotion is lost between rollicking bookends.

The album has its share of dumb thunder and gratuitous guitar harmonies, and lyrically it can be a snoozer (see “1974”). But I got over the idea that Ryan Adams was supposed to be profound when I became tired of his verbose whining.

Liner notes reveal weird cameos from Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day) and Melissa Auf Der Maur (Hole), the carefully arranged contents of his wallet, and a shout-out to NYC bar Niagara—go say hi.

He may still need to get over himself, but if nothing else, Rock N Roll is freewheeling and spirited without hesitation—not to mention ripe for radio play. With Adams, it’s give in or give up, and for now I’m in. But does that mean I have to buy into his new alt-metal band, Werewolph, too?

—Ashley Hahn

Jefferson Airplane
Takes Off; Surrealistic Pillow; After Bathing at Baxter’s; Crown of Creation (RCA)

Remastered, expanded and anno-tated, the first four albums by Jefferson Airplane—Takes Off, Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing at Baxter’s and Crown of Creation—reveal the ascent and peak of one of the only ’60s San Francisco bands to have all of the members from their prime lineup still alive (not that re-forming would be a good idea).

Takes Off, from 1966, barely hints at what was to come, being more in step with the day’s folk-rock. The next year’s Surrealistic Pillow marked the arrival of Grace Slick and drummer Spencer Dryden—everything was now in place. While the album contained their two biggest chart hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” it took until the end of the year and After Bathing at Baxter’s for this uneasy alliance of six musicians to start firing on all cylinders.

Unapologetically experimental in total, it’s filled with songs that stir by their innovative sonic architecture. In particular, bassist Jack Casady (whose idiosyncratic rumblings can be heard in the otherwise-common arrangements of their debut) is a ferocious presence, and Jorma Kaukonen is fully flowered as a soloist.

Crown of Creation, in 1968, coalesced the experimentation around a great set of songs. The three-vocal frontline (Slick, Marty Balin and Paul Kantner) is a stunning force on the title song, while Balin, his leadership slipping, turns in a couple of his last great performances with the band on “Share a Little Joke” and “If You Feel.” Kantner was yet to get too carried away with revolution and spaceships, a turn that has dated much of his subsequent writing. Unfortunately, Slick is on the cusp of annoyance, with “Lather” being nothing but empty calories in a pretty package.

The five Airplane albums that followed started with the superb live Bless Its Pointed Little Head and near-peak Volunteers. The band unraveled rapidly thereafter, so catch them on their way up with these first four.

—David Greenberger

The Twilight Singers
Blackberry Belle (One Little Indian/Birdman)

Greg Dulli is that smarmy guy in the corner at a party, sipping on a martini and carrying on with just about everybody in the room without ever actually making eye contact. You know, the guy who’s always waiting to make his move. On Blackberry Belle, the latest release under his Twilight Singers moniker, he continues doing what he does best: singing about fucked-up people doing fucked-up things. Unlike in his previous band—the late, great Afghan Whigs—Dulli is the only constant Twilight Singer, which allows him to follow his whim down whatever dank alley it might take him, and on Belle, it brings him to a new career high—or low, depending on how you look at it.

On Blackberry Belle, Dulli has ditched most of the programmed beats and electronic blips of 2000’s Twilight in favor of a more organic live-band feel, courtesy of a host of guest players, including multi-instrumentalist Mathias Schneeberger and Mark Lanegan, whose unmistakable whiskey-damaged baritone turns up on set-closer “Number Nine.” Written and recorded in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Memphis, these 11 songs play out like the soundtrack to an unsettling dream. “You wanna go for a ride?” Dulli shouts on the cleverly titled “Teenage Wristband,” and you almost want to go along with him, even though you know he’s definitely not headed for the nice part of town. Although “Fountain and Fairfax” (from the Whigs’ 1993 LP, Gentlemen) is still Dulli’s best song, his writing on Belle is more consistent than ever and his vocals are at their apex. This one is worth seeking out, if only for the skittering, funky ode to nastiness, “Fat City (Slight Return),” on which he asks, “Why you watch a carwreck, muthafucker?” The answer: “Cuz it looks fun to die.” Through Greg Dulli’s twisted worldview, I guess it does.

—John Brodeur

Yo La Tengo
This Is the Day (Matador)

The title track of Yo La Tengo’s six-song EP, “This Is the Day,” is a muscled-up version of a song from their recent Summer Sun album. Far from being merely a single padded out to keep attention focused on the larger work, this set is a perfectly balanced short-form offering with character all its own. As a sort of flipside to the more luxuriating tempos of the aforementioned Sun, this one comes out punching. And it picks the pace up from there, as “This Is the Day” gives way to the ferociously undulating “Styles of the Times,” followed by the mesmerizingly pounding “Outsmartener.” Tipping into the second half, the volume falls away as Georgia Hubley steps forward to sing Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” acoustically of course. Plugging back in, but keeping it airy, the instrumental “Dr. Crash” drifts away as the acoustic “Cherry Chapstick” closes out the disc. Twenty-three minutes, all the major food groups—eat right to keep fit.

—David Greenberger

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