With its fuck-all self-destructive streak, post-cowpunk reformation, and Ryan Adams’s elemental yet profound songwriting, Whiskeytown was the Replacements of the so-called alt-country pack of the mid-‘90s—when it wasn’t on fire, it burned fiery and bright. The band began as just another Uncle Tupelo knockoff, singing songs about pawn shops and county lines and merging punk spirit with country form. Whiskeytown wasn’t much of a band in the traditional sense—its rhythm section was a revolving door (Adams and fiddle player Caitlin Cary were the only two constant members) and it soon seemed to be little more than a thinly veiled warm-up for Adams’ solo career.
Nevertheless, the band managed to pull it all together for Strangers Almanac (1997), its major-label debut and last album to be released before its 1999 breakup. Like the ‘Mats’ Pleased to Meet Me, Strangers Almanac wrangled Whiskeytown’s unruliness into polished structure, yielding a ragged heart and clean lapels. It also liberated the group from the “alt-country” pigeonhole by embracing bare-knuckled rock (“Yesterday’s News”, “Turn Around”, “Waiting to Derail”), soul (“Everything I Do”), and folk (“Avenues”). Still, the band maintained a grip on genuine country longing with songs like “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”, a great shit-kickin’ country tune boosted by Greg Leisz’s freewheeling pedal steel and Adams’s drawled delivery, hanging just out of irony’s reach.
Most important to Strangers Almanac‘s success was Adams’ growth as a songwriter. His songs were much more simple and direct than before—they harbored plain truths of beautiful defeat and aimless drift, of waiting for Great Things while observing the temporary redemption of Little Things. The best moments on the album subsist on phrasings of routine statement—“Man, I love the feel when I go out / Dancing with the women at the bar” or “Don’t ask me how I’m doin’ when everything I do says ‘I miss you’”—moments of frugal clarity that don’t require any further explanation beyond their face value. Adams really nailed the prosaic transcendence of Paul Westerberg with “Losering”, a song that bears more than a passing resemblance to Westerberg’s “Unsatisfied”. Essentially a one-lyric anti-anthem that wrings Big Truth from an otherwise colorless phrase, “Losering” repeats the same defeatist mantra (“Losering / Patiently / I could tell / She could tell / Everything / Losering”) until the band’s escalating force turns it into an overwhelming emotion.
Producer Jim Scott, fresh off engineering Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, was no doubt a major factor in Whiskeytown’s cleaned-up and tightened sound (although it bears mentioning that the band’s original rhythm section, Skillet Gilmore and Steve Grothmann, were replaced by drummer Steven Terry and bassist Jeff Rice immediately before the Strangers Almanac sessions began). The pre-production demos that the band recorded in Durham, NC (known as the “Barn’s on Fire” sessions and available for the first time commercially on this two-disc deluxe edition) attest to this fact; the early acoustic sketches for “Somebody Remembers the Rose” and “Avenues” are excruciatingly slow, while “16 Days” and “Houses on the Hill” feel flat and underdeveloped. A five-song live session from Los Angeles radio station KCRW allows a more intimate glimpse at the harmony vocal interplay between Adams and fiddle player Caitlin Cary, but the performances are labored and make the songs far more boring than they should be.
As would be expected, the majority of bonus material on this two-disc edition (which, ironically, outnumbers songs from the original album two-to-one) follows in the disposable vein of the songs above. Songs from the “Barn’s on Fire” sessions that didn’t make the cut, like “My Heart Is Broken” and “Kiss & Make-Up”, are examples of Adams writing by-the-numbers, while the band can barely stumble its way through a cover of Gram Parsons’s “Luxury Liner”. And since part of the thrill of the Strangers Almanac songs is listening to how the band wraps its arms around them, it’s safe to say that only the most obsessive of Adams fans will want to return to his acoustic demos of songs that were still in development.
Granted, there are some terrific rare and unreleased tracks here: “Breathe”, a stirring rocker in the “Yesterday’s News” tradition, is the one great originals left behind from the “Barn’s on Fire” sessions; a meat-and-potatoes run through Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” is pretty solid, despite Adams’s inability to hit the high notes; “Theme for a Trucker”, originally included on the soundtrack to The End of Violence, is a nice mid-tempo country archetype; and “Ticket Time”, “The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over”, and “Wither, I’m a Flower”, all originally on the In Your Wildest Dreams EP bundled with the original pressing of Strangers Almanac, are supplements worthy of a fan’s shelf space. (Though it should be noted that “Ticket Time” and “The Rain” are presented here as “alternate versions”, and the fourth song from In Your Wildest Dreams, “Factory Girl”, is oddly missing.) That handful of songs may not be enough incentive to replace your original copy of the album with this set, but then again, with Whiskeytown the bad always seemed to find a way of mingling with the good.