New Music from Ryan Adams and The Jayhawks

When I read that the Americana Music Association recently gave the Artist of the Year Award to Buddy Miller, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I love Buddy Miller’s work as well as his new CD, so I am always glad to see him get the recognition he deserves. On the other hand, I did not even know there were Americana Music Association Awards, and I wondered what is the status of Americana music — or alt-country — two decades after writers started using the terminology to describe a type of music. There is a lot that may be said, and Chimesfreedom may revisit the topic in the future. For now, one answer is provided in new releases by two giants of the field, Ryan Adams and The Jayhawks.

Mockingbird Time (2011) by The Jayhawks: The new CD by the Jayhawks created much excitement with the return of Mark Olson to the band for the first recording since the classic Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995). I was excited too, but in looking through my CD collection, I was surprised to learn that I had not missed a CD from the band’s catalog, and that I do love all of the albums, including the ones without Olson where Gary Louris continued to lead the band in interesting directions. I have been listening to the new CD for several weeks because it often takes many listens before I know how much I like a new album. The new CD does capture some of the magic of Tomorrow the Green Grass, although I have yet to fall in love with the new music as much as I did with some of the songs on the 1995 album. For me, the new album does not exceed the Olson-less Smile and Sound Of Lies, but I realize that many fans prefer this version of the band. Below is “Closer to Your Side,” one of the highlights of the new album:

Ashes & Fire by Ryan Adams: Like The Jayhawks CD, a new Ryan Adams CD has to compete with a back catalog of great albums and music. When I first heard Heartbreaker (2000) and Gold (2001), I immediately fell in love with the albums and could not stop hitting the replay button. I had a similar reaction to his work with Whiskeytown. Ashes & Fire, Adams’s latest effort, did not immediately grab me like those albums, but it is a solid effort with some great (“Lucky Now”) and almost-great (“Ashes & Fire”) songs.

The opening lines of the first song on Ashes & Fire, “Dirty Rain” (““Last time I was here it was raining / It isn’t raining anymore”) even evoke the opening cadence of the superior classic “Oh My Sweet Carolina” from Heartbreaker. I have always been more of a fan of Adams’s country-ish and upbeat songs over his contemplative slow songs (or his digressions into other genres). This new album stays close to alt-country but delves into his slower folk side too. But it continues to grow on me like some of his other albums that started out okay for me but that I later came to love, like Jacksonville City Nights (2005). So I am reserving judgment and plan to enjoy the CD many more times.

Conclusion? Many of the great “alt-country” artists of the last few decades continue to record great work (even if one may classify the music in different categories). If you are a fan of Ryan Adams and/or The Jayhawks, you will like the return to form on their new CDs, which are both solid enjoyable efforts. If you are not familiar with their work, though, you might want to start with some of their other albums. But either way, these new CDs are a fine addition to already fantastic catalogs. For Ryan Adams, who was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease five years ago, the return is especially triumphant.

Bonus Reviews, Because Why Should You Trust Me?: For a detailed mixed review of Ryan Adams’s Ashes & Fire, check out Pitchfork. For a positive review, check out Popmatters. By contrast, Popmatters gave a mixed review to Mockingbird Time by The Jayhawks. Consequence of Sound argues that The Jayhawks almost get it right.

What do you think of the new music from Ryan Adams and The Jayhawks? Leave a comment.

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