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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Castle Talk
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Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Strangers Almanac (Deluxe Edition)

Rating: 7.7/10 ?

March 4, 2008
Throughout Ryan Adams' career, which has seen him evolve from the maverick of his youth into a musical marathoner, his staggering musical production has often overwhelmed his label, his band-mates and even his most loyal fans. He seemingly has the stamina to challenge his followers, frustrate his critics, and enrage his financial backers, and often does all three with one sweeping motion. There are a few familiar and constant givens with Adams though; his output is wildly inconsistent and truly exhaustive.

With Adams' latest amendment to his discography, Strangers Almanac: Deluxe Edition, it seems like the native North Carolinian has somehow struck a deal with the devil/Geffen Records to get first, seconds and sometimes thirds (see the triad of versions for "Somebody Remembers the Rose") out to the masses. Originally issued with a baker's dozen of tunes, the Strangers Almanac reissue boasts a whopping 39 tracks (that's right, a three-fold increase). The first disc of the 2xCD set contains the original album and four unreleased live radio performances. The second disc contains 19 more tracks, ten previously unreleased Adams originals, four covers, acoustic versions of three more, and two tracks that appeared on movie soundtracks.

Strangers Almanac circa 2008 is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for the casual fan; don't expect the previously unreleased cuts (Ryan Adams originals debuting in this collection) to jump out much. And with bonus tracks that literally double the number of tunes of the original release (13 to 26), this edition makes one wonder just what Adams did to find himself in such good graces with his insufferable record label. Perennial Geffen and critical darling Bruce Springsteen had to wait three decades for Born to Run to get its due, and they've rolled out the deluxe carpet for Adams after only a dozen. Something doesn't quite add up.

Be that as it may, if you're willing to wade in, the Whiskeytown water is actually quite nice. Although most of the new tracks are forgettable, the acoustic tone serves the reworked originals well. "16 Days," "Avenues," and "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" get new readings and simplified arrangements, and Adams' old raspy voice does the songs no injustice. Each one takes on a new meaning, with "Excuse Me" in particular living up to and perhaps surpassing the original. Perhaps the strongest cut - and most unabashedly countrified - of the "first wave" of alt-country, "Excuse Me," with its layered acoustic guitars (from Adams and Phil Wandscher), is equally catchy and brilliant in this form. The unplugged format also revives "16 Days" and reveals the song in a new light. Although the weakest of the three, the slower version of "Avenues," sung an octave up, sounds like it could appear on a recent Adams' release.

As for the new tunes, Deluxe Edition's second disc is a bit top-heavy. Opener "Indian Gown" is a welcome addition, but tracks 7-10 truly make up the cream of the crop. "I Still Miss Someone" sounds like Adams playing a forgotten tune solo in his bedroom with its vintage walking, thumb-picked bass line. The next track, "Kiss & Make-Up," turns things up a bit as Adams brings back in the band, and is one of the few cuts from disc two that sounds like it could've snuck onto the original release. From there, Adams' songs take a decidedly rougher turn and seem progressively tossed off, even sloppy. "Barn's on Fire" still retains a lot of the likeability of the earlier tracks but hints at the weaker, less finished songs to come. "Theme for a Trucker," "10 Seconds," and "Ticket Time" are all interesting in their historical significance but pale in comparison to the original songs.

Overall, Strangers Almanac: Deluxe Edition, with its dizzying track list, is too good to be true for Adams fans, and not really all that exciting for everyone else. Amongst alt-country fans, many consider the Whiskeytown discography with more weight than Adams' early solo efforts (see Heartbreaker). The true treasure in Deluxe Edition lies in the acoustic versions, which serve to highlight the depth and strength of the record's gems. Most of the new tracks often seem like unfinished thoughts in the already wildly ADD mind of Adams. Be that as it may, even though this particular reissue doesn't blow the original out of the water, for once the record company seems to have been ahead of the curve in re-releasing an important record for an important musical movement. Bravo!

Reviewed by Jeff McMahon
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See other reviews by Jeff McMahon



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