Ryan Adams and the Cardinals - Cardinology
Record Label: Lost Highway
Release Date: October 28, 2008
Years ago, before “I love you… man” and the current “Drinkability” ad campaign, Bud Light used to be touted in commercials as the beer that “doesn’t fill you up and never lets you down.” I can’t claim to be a fan of Bud Light, but that slogan pretty much sums up how I feel about Ryan Adams’ albums. None of his releases seems to fulfill the potential that he’s hinted at over the years, though they’re all consistently decent enough that they’re not disappointing.
Cardinology is Adams’ tenth release since the breakup of Whiskeytown. It’s easy to be impressed with that level of output, but I can’t help but to think that he’s been sacrificing quality for quantity. Personally, I’d like to see what he could create if he gave himself a couple of years to put together an album (like, you know, everyone else does). Even so, a new Ryan Adams album is still exciting news, because you know there will be a least a few real gems. Plus, I’m somewhat partial to his recordings with the Cardinals over his solo records, with Jacksonville City Nights being his best work overall.
From the outset, it’s clear that, on Cardinology, Adams is not aiming to cover the same territory as Jacksonville City Nights, which was heavily influenced by 1960s and early 1970s Nashville Sound era country, brimming with steel guitars and slip-note style piano. This time around, the steel guitar is still employed, but in more of a classic rock style, like on the opener, “Born Into a Light,” which finds the Cardinals sounding a lot like classic rockers, the Marshall Tucker Band. Similarly, the subtle piano that appears on the next track, “Go Easy,” is played in a more traditional pop-rock style. This is probably the most “rock” album that Adams has made since Rock ‘n Roll, yet it still retains his trademark alt-country twang, which Rock ‘n Roll really didn’t. The bluesy ballad “Fix It” recalls the Eagles toward the end of their career (their real career – before their 1980 break-up), while “Magick” is about as aggressive a Ryan Adams song as you’ll find.
After those first four tracks, the album definitely carries some momentum, a palpable energy that will have you excited to hear more. That’s why initially, it’s a little disappointing when the opening of “Cobwebs” slows things down a bit, but with patience comes appreciation for what turns out to be a poignant new-Springsteen style ballad. From this point forward, Cardinology never regains the vivacity it had in the early going, but it’s easy not to care when the barroom shuffle “Let Us Down Easy” comes on. Just order up an ice cold Bud Light (“It’s always worth it!”) and sing along: “Some of us are strong / But the rest of us are weak / So let us down, if you must / But let us down easy.”
The record flows on with the acoustic-guitar-and-piano ballad, “Crossed Out Name” and the mid-tempo groove of “Natural Ghost,” which features a rare falsetto chorus from Adams . “Sink Ships” is an expansive pop tune, contrasting sharply with its successor, the pastoral “Evergreen.” The last two tracks close out the album in grand fashion, starting with “Like Yesterday,” with its Wilco-inspired guitar lines, and ending with the five-and-a-half minute “Stop,” a sparse, aching ballad, which finds Adams’ vocal quaver sounding just right, barely rising over a whisper at times, accompanied only by piano and a dusting of strings. Normally, I find that this type of song does not suit Ryan Adams’ style all that well and they have come out sounding flat on his previous albums, but not this time.
Ryan Adams is definitely an artist who is not afraid to take his music wherever the muse leads and that’s a big part of what makes him intriguing: you never know exactly what you’re going to get with a new record. Admittedly, I was hoping this record would be a “twangier” effort, in the vein of Jacksonville City Nights. While that’s definitely not how Cardinology turned out, it ended up being Ryan Adams’ most consistent effort to date.
The Cardinals is the current band of Ryan Adams. They are featured on the albums Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights, Follow the Lights and Cardinology as Adams' backing band. Though credited as a solo Ryan Adams release, the 2007 album Easy Tiger also features the Cardinals, as does the Willie Nelson album Songbird.
While the Cardinals are the backing band on Easy Tiger, it was billed as a solo release. I don't pretend to know why, but it must have been significant to someone. It's certainly not to me, so for those whose panties are in a bunch, I've edited the review.