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Published: 2006/02/17
by Mike Greenhaus

29 – Ryan Adams

Lost Highway 5872-02

2005 was a busy year for Ryan Adams. Between outing himself as a closet Deadhead and freaking out enough times to make even Brian Wilson look sane, Adams somehow found room to record three albums of new material. Though the first two discs in the former Whiskeytown-frontman’s trilogy explored folky psychedelia (Cold Roses) and classic honky-tonk (Jacksonville Nights) with his new band the Cardinals, 29 is billed as a return to Adams’ Heartbreaker roots. While not an entirely stripped down collection, 29 does find Adams largely on his own, sparsely backed by the production team of Ethan Johns and JP Bowersock. In an ideal world, 29 would tie 2005’s loose ends together into a single, final thought. But, instead, it ends up sounding like a pile of post-holiday leftovers waiting to be returned in 2006.

In certain ways, it's sad that Adams tried to squeeze 29 into 2005. In the past 12 months, the guitarist has had an artistic renaissance, mostly thanks to his new ensemble the Cardinals. Equally capable exploring traditional American soundscapes and American Beauty-era space, the Cardinals are the prefect foil for Adams’ sound: a whiskey weathered halfway house between Nashville and Neil Young. It’s the contrast between Adams’ emotional longing and the Cardinals’ sturdy, subtle pedal steel touches which made both Cold Roses and Jacksonville Nights among 2005’s best releases. When left to his own devises, Adams’ voice has a tendency to sound whiny, losing love songs like “Blue Sky Blues” and “Elizabeth, You were Born to Play That Part,” in a murky-haze of post-breakup depression.

For longtime Adams fans, 29 does offer an intimacy last seen on Gold. With Johns and Bowersock providing spare accompaniment throughout the nine songs, Adams’ lyrics come to the forefront, tackling such up-beat themes as abandonment (“Strawberry Wine”) loss (“Carolina Rain”) and sadness (err, “The Sadness”). While not a bad album, 29 sounds like an afterthought, random ideas that couldn’t quite fit on the guitarist’s previous two releases. Perhaps the album’s most intriguing number, Adams also outs his inner demons, quite literally, in the ode-to alcoholism on “Nightbirds”: “the people here inside me/they are loud in the night/they scream and smash the windows/and they fight.” But, by and large, Adams’ voice doesn’t deliver, lacking both Cold Roses and Heartbreaker’s bare emotion. Revealing, yes, but in general 29 lacks the cohesiveness of its more mature siblings.

One thing that hasn’t changed since Cold Roses is Adams’ pronounced love for the Grateful Dead. But, while Cold Roses captured American Beauty’s spirit through unique motifs, 29 borders on plagiarism. 29’s opening number, and title track, is a note-for-note remake of the Dead’s “Truckin,” complete with Bob Weir’s signature rhythm lines and a road-trippin’ approved drum beat. Since first linking up with Phil Lesh at the Jammys last April, Adams has warn his Steal Your Face logo on his sleeve, filling a void missing since the days of Jerry. Indeed, Adams is the true heir to Garcia’s angelic voice and a fitting candidate for the Dead’s rotating guitar spot. Similarly, in their brief time together, Lesh has Adams push the boundaries of his own songs, stretching each individual composition to its breaking point without losing track of its structure. Without Lesh or the Cardinals’ lush sounds, though, 29 sounds bare, as if these were demos awaiting a future recording session.

In 2005, Adams referred to the Cardinals of his permanent band, making 29 his supposed “final” solo release. Perhaps it’s structure that Adams is looking for, a close-knit group of musicians to reign in his eccentric tendencies and flesh out his inner monologues. Either way, it’s unfortunate that 29 ended an otherwise stellar year for the onetime Heartbreaker, proving that profound and prolific are anything but synonyms.

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