Music Review: The Folk Rock Boys

Frank Black of the Pixies and bad boy Ryan Adams have put out new albums that, at their mellow best, skillfully substitute pedal steel for screams.

By Danielle Dreilinger

The 2005 Newport Folk Festival made an unusual decision when it came time to pick their Saturday headliner: seminal indie-rock band the Pixies, famous for the song “Here Comes My Man.” The fest also booked My Morning Jacket and Elvis Costello. These choices raised eyebrows, but maybe organizers were on to something: more and more, rockers are unafraid to ratchet down.

Of course, with the Pixies a simple question came up: Why make a rock band play acoustic when a more obvious musician was so close? They could have chosen Pixies frontman Frank Black to perform his post-Pixies material. The rocker has spent the last several years making roots-rock albums that substitute pedal steel for screams. Even while touring with the reunited Pixies, Black has released another entry in this list: “Honeycomb” (Virgin Back Porch), a Nashville album recorded with Memphis/Muscle Shoals session veterans like pianist Spooner Oldham and bassist David Hood.

“Honeycomb” finds Black in transit. “I was feeling like some kind of unfinished project,” he sings. He also sings about renting, putting his things in storage, and wandering “seven years out West,” the last perhaps a reference to his time in Los Angeles. Midlife crisis? He leaves one wife, marries another. An appropriately off-key duet with the former celebrates the dying romance (also fitting, the harmony drops out at the climax of the song). “Violet” hails the latter. And perhaps he hasn’t even settled then: the lyrics call Violet a rest stop on the way to somewhere else.

However, the album’s sound reflects none of this drama. “Honeycomb” is incredibly mellow. Black’s gravelly voice rarely conveys anything more dramatic than back-porch reflection, even when he sings “today I burn” or “I’m growling now in the wings.” (One of those rare exceptions is his promise to an elusive lover: “My lips will burn your skin/If you return again.”) It’s no surprise that the Muscle Shoals players give the album a late 60s R&B flavor, with lots of casual guitar and keyboard noodling. Compare to “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” or Lionel Ritchie especially the soul cover “Dark End of the Street,” which Black wails in quiet falsetto. “Sunny Sunday Mill Valley Groove Day” (another cover) is pure flower-child amnesic bliss.

The Nashville pedigree has made critics compare the album to Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.” However, down the road no one will call “Honeycomb” legendary or seminal — leave that status to the Pixies’s “Doolittle.” It simply doesn’t have many memorable songs. The even-tempered vocals deaden the experience, as does Black’s tendency to sound like he’s been hit on the head by a rhyming dictionary (“I had a castle, I had no hassles/Now tears are tassels”). In retrospect, the album’s best moments are its strangest: the ex-wife duet and a tragicomic song hailing an intrepid shrimp’s trip – via shrimper net – to Louisiana (his parents wonder why he doesn’t write).

Although Ryan Adams started out with alt-country darlings Whiskeytown, he attained fame in his pop phase. His diva behavior since — missed deadlines, cancelled shows, rumored coke use, movie-star girlfriend, punching people out — has only amplified his status as a rock boy. Tantrums, however, have not stanched his productivity, which in 2005 promises epic results: three albums, two of them double. Whether this constitutes artistic inspiration or an effort to race through a multi-album contract ASAP is up for debate.

In other words, it’s easy to criticize Adams for overindulgent, under-edited hackdom. But is Adams Stephen King, or is he Charles Dickens? For “Cold Roses,” his first 2005 release with backup band the Cardinals, the answer is a little of both. Emotionally, Adams starts out lost and then gets found. Disc two lightens the mood, increases the tempo, ratchets up the guitars — and after two great songs loses most of its steam. However, disc one showcases his melancholy country side, and it’s a winner.

Adams portrays himself as a heartbroken loser floundering in a love affair’s aftermath. He longs for lies, lullabies, and his old girlfriend back. The contrast with his public image adds extra spice: You figure he probably knows how winning he can be when he makes the musical equivalent of puppy-dog eyes. He earns his charm, though. Adams can write a hook that slithers up your leg and bites your neck. Even sleepy songs like “Now That You’re Gone” and “Mockingbird” suck the listener in at the chorus.

Adams has mastered the emotional language of slide guitar and harmony, the latter from several women singers and his own murmured falsetto. On the lush opening track, ” Magnolia Mountain ,” the hazy instrumentation lulls the listener into the dream world Adams seeks. In “Sweet Illusions,” he mourns the pending breakup by leaning into the word “sweet” while Cindy Cashdollar’s pedal steel plays arpeggios. The cymbals and steel shimmer through a song that is addictive as a bittersweet morphine drip.

Not every song indulges these sweet musical illusions. “Beautiful Sorta” is a dirty-sounding garage number with faint echoes of Buddy Holly. “Meadowlake Street” starts high and fragile before it turns into a rocker. A few guitar solos come straight out of the ’70s arena. The title track brays harshly until its refrain bursts into harmony. All these provide a needed diversion from the heavier songs.

“Cold Roses” is uneven and sometimes frustrating. “Cherry Lane” opens as a straight-ahead country song, complete with yodel. Yet it never quite delivers. Adams takes it into disjointed directions, culminating in a pounding refrain that certainly gives catharsis — only not the one you expected. On the whole, Adams doesn’t always deliver on what he promises. But sometimes the albums that grab you the most are the ones that don’t quite work.

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