Some people may be surprised to see Ryan Adams putting out another release just a few months after Easy Tiger, which was hailed by many critics as his best album yet (although this reporter would still save that distinction for 2005’s Cold Roses.) But those who find a second release in a year to be surprising haven’t been following Adams’ career. The singer/songwriter is quite simply an old-school throwback to another era, where bands didn’t go years in between albums.
Adams is one of the most prolific songwriters of his generation (or any generation), he released three albums in 2005 and has a seven-disc box set of unreleased material on tap for December. Perhaps all this material is in response to the fact that Adams feels lucky to be alive, since he told the New York Times earlier this year that drug problems nearly killed him over the past few years. Now sober for over a year, Adams seems ready to live out the rock and roll dream if his mostly outstanding live shows from this past summer are any indication.
Only the first two of the seven songs on Lights are actually new, ostensibly written for the new ABC series October Road. But like his classic rock pal Phil Lesh, Adams is a creative alpha dog who likes to re-interpret his own material. The results need not be judged as better or worse, but merely as new takes on old friends. The title track leads off the EP with a cheery acoustic vibe, as if the listeners are being greeted by an old friend that they unexpectedly bumped into on a street corner. “Follow the lights… and they will lead you home/ There was never anywhere to go, but home”, Adams sings in a consoling tone.
“My Love for You is Real” follows with a laid back vibe that is just plain comforting. Adams has written plenty of songs about love and loss, but this one is heartwarming. There’s a slow but steady beat, and some tasty banjo picking that conjures a warm summer evening with the band playing out on the porch or in the backyard. A little pedal steel guitar (an increasingly lost art) in the background adds to the vibe, as multiple guitars jam out in the end, recalling tunes by artists such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan. This isn’t a Ryan Adams solo joint, and the jam at the end features the full sonic majesty that the Cardinals are known to provide.
“Blue Hotel” brings an alt-country vibe, as Adams croons while the acoustic guitars and pedal steel create a bluesy, southern mood. The song was originally released on Willie Nelson’s Songbird, which Adams produced. Here, Adams demonstrates the alt-country authenticity that has legends like Nelson wanting to work with him. There’s just no one else out there these days that can sing this stuff like Adams can. A sweet pedal steel solo elevates the track further, before coming back down into the last chorus.
The disc then takes a left turn into the early ‘90s as Adams and the Cardinals deliver a stunning cover of Alice in Chains’ grunge classic, “Down in a Hole.” Some Alice in Chains fans will probably call this sacrilege, but Adams has been covering the tune for years. He’s dealt with the same drug problems that Alice in Chains front man Layne Staley was writing about, yet unlike Staley, Adams was able to come back from the abyss and live to tell the tale. “Down in a hole, feeling so small/ down in a hole, losing my soul/… out of control,” Adams sings with the powerful authority of experience. Adams seems to be conjuring his own demons on the track, yet it feels as if he’s keeping them at bay by doing so. As with the best cover songs, Adams and the Cardinals deliver a whole new arrangement. Rather than try to out rock Alice in Chains, the band gives the song the Cardinals treatment, multiple layers of clean guitars, supremely bluesy pedal steel, and lots of sonic space. The effect is startling and makes for one of the best recordings of the year.
The band takes a similar approach on remakes of two of Adams’ own songs, “This is It” from 2003’s Rock and Roll album and “If I am a Stranger” from 2005’s Cold Roses. Like a jazz artist determined to keep working up a song in different and potentially newly revealing ways, Adams and the band transform the songs into entirely new musical animals. “This is It” still rocks, but the brash punk vibe is gone, replaced by the early ‘70s classic rock vibe that Adams appears to have grown into. The song feels as if it has grown up, but not old.
The transformation on “If I am a Stranger” is even more remarkable. The original version is performed as a feel good rocker, despite the fact that the lyrics express the pain and anguish of wondering whether a troubled relationship is going to work out. Here, the music and vocals are made to match the lyrical vibe in a starkly arresting way as the tempo is slowed and the guitars stripped down. The pedal steel guitar truly sounds like it’s crying, and if the listener is personally familiar with the song and such a situation; a tear could indeed be induced.
“Dear John” closes out the session with another slice of alt-country, featuring harmony verses, bluesy piano and some Stonesy acoustic guitar licks that would be right at home on Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street. Adams had previously recorded this one too, but here it benefits from the full Cardinals treatment.
While it may only have two “new” songs, Lights is no toss-off. Each track may as well be new as far as Adams’ musical muse is concerned. The musicianship is superb, Adams’ vocals are uniformly strong and the EP features finely crafted harmonies and melodic layers that are further revealing upon repeat listening. For those who felt that Easy Tiger ran a little short at 38 minutes and change, Lights (clocking in at 31 minutes) offers up a companion that fits right alongside.