- - Monday, October 10, 2011

Ashes & Fire

Ryan Adams

Capitol Records /PAX AM

★★★ 1/2

Even in retirement, Ryan Adams knew how to keep our attention.

First, he announced his decision to quit music, bringing an end to one of the most prolific song-writing streaks of the 21st century - 10 albums in nine years, a marathon pace rivaled only by heavyweights such as Bob Dylan. Then he married Mandy Moore, a former teen idol who had spent the late 1990s singing pop songs while her future husband fronted the boozy country-rock band Whiskeytown.

While settling into married life, Mr. Adams also released two collections of older music. One focused on material he’d cut with the Cardinals, the band he had carefully pieced together over the previous four years. The other was a bizarre heavy-metal concept album with song titles such as “Ghorgon, Master of War.”

“Ashes & Fire” is a gem. These new songs aren’t necessarily the finest of Mr. Adams‘ career, although tracks such as “Dirty Rain” and “Chains of Love” come close. And the album doesn’t reach the same heights that its stylistic cousin, “Heartbreaker,” scaled with ease in 2000. Still, this comeback album reminds us why we waited so long for Mr. Adams‘ return, putting up with all his heavy-metal shenanigans in the meantime.

Working with Glyn Johns, a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who produced albums for the Rolling Stones and the Beatles during his earlier years, Mr. Adams returns to the earnest, lightly decorated folk music that launched his solo career. The songs are presented simply, with straightforward contributions from a number of guests - including Norah Jones and Tom Petty’s longtime pianist, Benmont Tench - that support the material but rarely overwhelm. Nothing is hammed up, and Mr. Adams never appears to be playing a character, as he’s done so often with albums such as “Rock n Roll” and the cowboyish (but admittedly great) “Jacksonville City Nights.”

Strings swoop their way into the occasional chorus, beefing up the music with some orchestral elegance, and brushed drums keep the songs moving forward at a soft clip. Even so, the spotlight rarely leaves Mr. Adams, who fingerpicks his acoustic guitar with the same mix of professionalism and front-porch casualness that informs his singing. For the record, he’s never sounded better than he does here, whether he’s crooning the almost embarrassingly tender “I Love You but I Don’t Know What to Say” or trading harmonies with his wife on “Save Me.” Credit his sobered-up lifestyle for that one.

Don’t forget: Mr. Adams still knows how to keep our attention. Relaunching his career with an easygoing, autobiographical folk album is as much a savvy marketing move as a byproduct of a happy marriage, particularly after so many of his previous albums hid his true self behind alter egos. Even so, “Ashes & Fire” doesn’t feel as calculated as it probably is - it’s too effortless, too classic-sounding to come across as premeditated. If that’s not the mark of a great songwriter, what is?



Wind-up Records


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