My friend asthenia* (Ethan) and I love to talk about music. We thought it'd be fun to each choose an album every week that neither of us had heard, listen to it, and post our thoughts in a blog for (probably) no one to read. There's really no criteria for what we choose other than that it's something new for the both of us. So here it goes, enjoy!
At first glance, these two records seem to be an odd combination. Jack’s Mannequin is synonymous with sun bleached piano pop-rock, while Adams lo fi approach dragged country through the dirt, consequently making him a pillar of the alternative country genre. Or so we like to think. In reality, these vague classifications stem from both artists’ extensive back catalogues. As such, an unexpected theme of this week’s Daily Feature was letting go of the past and embracing the present. Although this is a fallacy permeating all branches of art, it is quite apparent in the music scene, and it’s a pitfall that I feel our community should try to avoid. We as fans often become so immersed in an artist’s previous work that we fail to appreciate their progress. You miss the tour playing the new material only to realize a year later that so-and-so’s new album is fantastic. We’ve all been there. To analyze an album without preconceptions is a difficult task. It requires conscious effort. But doing so allows you, if nothing else, to formulate an unbiased opinion about the world around you. Along the way, though, you’ll hopefully find something new that you actually enjoy. We did.
Jack’s Mannequin – People and Things [Ethan's Choice]
Dan: Last week, Ethan and I chose albums by bands I had never heard before. This week, we each chose one by artists that I’ve loved for a long time. I consider “Everything In Transit” a pop masterpiece, and “The Glass Passenger” is still a good album in its own right. I was hoping that Andrew McMahon would be able to recreate some of the EIT magic but I was completely doubtful that it would actually happen. So, how’d he do?
The album kicks off with the first single “My Racing Thoughts.” On the first listen this song underwhelmed me, but after really taking some time with it it’s grown on me immensely. No one can paint a picture or tell a story quite like Andrew can, and from the get-go he brings you into his world and doesn’t let you leave. After hearing the beautifully layered vocals in the final chorus I was already convinced that Andrew had created something I’d really enjoy. “Release Me” is up next, and it’s another standout track. The chorus is really catchy and it would serve well as a single. There is a moment near the end of the song, right before the final chorus, where all the music cuts out and Andrew begins to belt out the last chorus. You can hear so much passion coming from his voice, and that’s something that most pop artists can’s accomplish. “Television” comes after, and it continues the streak of great songs. “Television” may actually be my favorite song on the album. It starts off pretty quiet and then slowly turns into an inspiring and powerful anthem. I absolutely love this song and think everyone would do him or herself a favor by listening to it.
After this, the record becomes a lot more inconsistent. “Amy, I” is a passable but average song. “Hey Hey Hey” suffers the same fate. It’s not that they are unenjoyably, but I don’t find myself choosing to listen to them over others on the album. “People, Running” is the other contender for my favorite song. This is the song where I think Andrew truly found that EIT magic. It has a section of superb (but short) back-and-forth vocals that stands out as my favorite moment on the album. The last five songs all range from good to above average, but they’re not anything amazing. “Amelia Jean” has a nice chorus and “Platform Fire” is a pretty great quasi-ballad. The only song I was truly disappointed in was “Casting Lines.” Andrew always ends his albums on a high note, but “Casting Lines” was really subpar in comparison to past classics like “Caves.”
I had the opportunity to see JM live a few weeks ago and it was a great show. The new songs were really able to come alive and I think I appreciate them more because of it. There are some amazing songs on here and some average ones, but it’s definitely one that is worth checking out. It is very possible that this could sneak into my top 10 at the end of the year.
Favorite tracks: Television, People Running, Release Me
Ethan: Jack’s Mannequin is a band that I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with. Everything In Transit is one of my favorite records of all time, but I really wasn’t able to enjoy much of the Glass Passenger. I found it to be a forgettable record. The worst part was that I really tried to like it. I WANTED to like it. Andrew McMahon is the kind of musician I root for in this industry. He has an unabashed passion for music, and while the active roster of Warped Tour alumni has begun to whittle down, Andrew seems set for the long haul. After the Glass Passenger, my expectations for the next Jack’s release were non-existent; my hopes had been deflated. But again, I was rooting for Andrew. So I decided to give People and Things a try. After one or two listens, I had the disappointing realization that this album was not Everything In Transit. In fact, I have decided that Andrew will most likely never write an album as personal as EIT ever again. In this revelation though, I found a freedom. All my preconceptions of what a Jack’s Mannequin record should sound like disappeared. It was only then that I could appreciate People and Things.
This record is nothing like Everything In Transit, but it is still fantastic. By my fifth or sixth listen I had found an appreciation for Andrew’s vision, and better yet I was enjoying it. My Racing Thoughts is a solid opener, nicely bridging the time that’s passed since Passenger’s release. However, Andrew’s growth is apparent even here, particularly in the chorus’ synth line. Release Me is a driving rock track that really centers around Bobby Anderson’s guitar work, but with a chorus that is vintage McMahon. Hey Hey Hey (We’re All Gonna Die), while catchy was a grower for me. The opening line seemed cheesy, but I got over it. Surprisingly, my least favorite song is Amy, I. APers seem to like it, and Andrew himself seems to enjoy it but I find it bland. However, People Running more than makes up for that. It’s as if Bruce Springsteen wrote a Jack’s Mannequin song. The bridge, while minimalist, is one the album’s highlights. This is followed by Amelia Jean, which boasts one of the albums best choruses and really exemplifies how good Andrew’s more abstract lyricism can be. Platform Fire and Hostage help make the album’s second half the better of the two. Restless Dream is the most unprecedented song on People, featuring no Piano. Surprisingly, it works well. This was the song that actually helped me first appreciate Andrew’s progress, and it’s one of my favorites along with People Running and Television. The latter is the best song in the set, combining elements of U2 and 80’s synth pop to form a song that is stadium ready. Finally, Casting Lines has been heralded by anamericangod. Though, I don’t totally understand his love for it nicely ties together an album filled with artistic risks to remind us that at the end of the day, Andrew McMahon knows how to write a pop song. Despite all his progression, some things will never change.
Favorite tracks: Television, People Running, Restless Dream
Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire [My Choice]
Dan: I’ve never loved a Ryan Adams album even remotely as much as his debut solo album “Heartbreaker.” Every time I listen to something of his that has come out since then I find myself pretty disappointed. Even “Gold” and “Love is Hell,” two of his other more acclaimed albums, have been very inconsistent in my opinion. I was hoping that “Ashes and Fire” would break that trend but sadly I was left feeling the exact same way.
The first thing I thought when “Dirty Rain” started is how nice his vocals sound. The organ was nice and the entire song was really…nice. Maybe I expect more from Ryan Adams but I was slightly underwhelmed by the song as the opener. “Ashes and Fire” kicks in afterward and it’s in the vein of the quality that I know he is capable of. It is one of the more upbeat songs on the record, with catchy verses and a memorable chorus. “Come Home” is next. This song was pretty cheesy. It sounds exactly like any stereotypical ‘teenage movie make-out song’ and a million other songs you’ve already heard.
“Rocks” is a relatively strong track. The ‘rocks’ metaphor, which in theory could be quite cliché, actually works. The falsetto chorus proves to be one of the most memorable ones on the album. “Do I Wait,” the album’s best song, comes next. If you don’t take into account the increased production value the song would fit very nicely on “Heartbreaker.” The end of the song has a beautiful part where Ryan repeats ‘Do I Wait?’ over increasingly loud instruments. It sounds amazing and is one of the few completely inspired moments on the entire album.
“Chains of Love” and “Invisible Riverside” are both completely disposable. Thankfully, the last four songs are better. “Save Me” is another song that I like, but it’s not particularly memorable. I’ve always liked Ryan Adams best when he’s sad, but “Save Me” gives off the impression that he’s just being sad for the sake of it. Lyrically, it just talks about needing someone to save him, but from what? Maybe you don’t need any reason for saving other than that you are unhappy, but I couldn’t really connect with the song because it seemed too directionless. The next three songs end the album in an above average fashion; however, none of them are especially gripping. Yes, “Kindness” and “Lucky Now” are pretty good songs, but with all the good music coming out this year I don’t find myself coming back to them very often.
So there you go, I’ve found another Ryan Adams that I enjoy, with a few very strong songs, a few weak ones, and a lot that are just ‘okay.’ With all of the great music I’ve heard this year there’s no way this album will make it into my top 10 list at the end of it. But, if you’re a fan of Ryan Adams and have enjoyed what he’s done in the past, you will enjoy “Ashes and Fire” to an extent.
Favorite tracks: Do I Wait, Ashes and Fire, Lucky Now
Ethan: I really haven’t listened to much Ryan Adams. At Dan’s insistence I downloaded the critically (and AP) acclaimed Heartbreaker. As an angst ridden 20 something, I enjoy that record. Ryan displayed an ease and self-awareness that was refreshing. He was a fucked up miserable and entirely badass rock star, who’s song writing was founded in folk music. It was a lethal blend. Apparently, though, Adams has grown up in the past 11 years. His angst has all but disappeared on this record, and really all that remains is his folk roots. For a long time I didn’t like this record. It seemed boring and safe. It wasn’t until I took a walk in the rain that I figured out why it’s great.
This album is NOT an album to drive to. You could maybe listen to it while riding the bus. At best, if you want to experience this album in motion, take a walk. Adams has a knack for writing music that soundtracks your life. It’s more about feel than what he’s actually saying. For a lyric fanatic like myself, this seemingly should be the kiss of death for any album. This isn’t the case. At least not for Ashes and Fire. This album is for Friday evenings spent with a bottle of red or Sunday mornings spent dozing in bed. There are very few upbeat rock songs. The title track and Chains of Love are about the closest you’ll get to Heartbreaker here, and they sound next to nothing like Heartbreaker. Nevertheless, they are both great songs. Ashes and Fire in particular would work nicely in a Wes Anderson flick. Chains of Love with its string section doesn’t really flow with the album, but its production is great. The soul of this album, though, is in the slow and midtempo jams.
Ashes and Fire has the ability to do one of two things, depending on your current relationship status. If you’re taken, it gives you the ability to get drunk as hell and spend an evening slow dancing in the living room with your significant other. If you are single, it has the ability to break your heart as you lay in bed wishing you were dancing. Do I Wait and Dirty Rain are both good examples of this. They can break your heart in one context or be extremely comforting in another. This is also true of I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say, which is a particular highlight of the album and proceeded to make me extremely sad on my rainy stroll. Then of course there is lead single Lucky Now, which sounds single-y. It’s a good song, it’s no To Be Young, but it’s good.
While I enjoy the album I have made a point of not discussing the lyrics. They’re pretty bland or cheesy (I’m looking at you Come Home), and they were the reason I originally thought this record was little more than fodder for the OC-esque closing scenes. However an interesting progression arising in the time between Heartbreaker and Ashes is Adams upper register vocals, which are reminiscent of Neil Young; in a good way. Dude’s got that white man folk soul, and just as his first album suggest, he can (and probably will) break your heart.
Favorite tracks: Ashes and Fire, Do I Wait, I Love You But I Dont Know What To Say