Album Review

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals "Volume III/IV"

Brian Ahnmark
Why is Ryan Adams a pariah?

It must be because he writes a shit-ton of songs. How annoying – here I've been so grateful waiting five years between albums from other artists (ahem, The Strokes). Or maybe it's that he occasionally tires of that whole alt-country shoegazer mentality and (gasp!) plugs in an electric guitar to spice up the proceedings (I can think of a couple of other folks who do that... what are their names... ah, yes. Dylan and Young). Or maybe it's that he married Mandy Moore.

Actually, yes. That's a justifiable offense, the (lucky) bastard.

There are consequences that result from writing and recording a shit-ton of songs, the first being that a modern-day record label isn't going to know what the hell to do with them. Adams' squabbles with Lost Highway are well-documented, and came to a memorable head in 2003 when the label refused to release the brooding Love Is Hell until Adams cranked out (literally, in two weeks) the more commercially-friendly Rock N Roll. The fact that those albums were A) sonic polar opposites and B) absolutely phenomenal stuck a dagger to the heart of any argument that Adams “needs a song editor,” as his detractors so often proclaim.

In spite of Lost Highway's foot-dragging, the songs kept coming. And because of Lost Highway's foot-dragging, the songs kept backing up. Entire albums were rumored, unofficially announced, shelved and buried. In 2007, Adams entered Electric Lady Studios with his blessing of a backing band The Cardinals (“backing band” is an unjust insult, as The Cardinals have helped Adams create some of his most inspired work) and commenced a marathon six-month session.

Easy Tiger, the “official” release that ensued, was a dull, lifeless affair blatantly catered toward Lost Highway's craving for a “return to form” album – bait taken happily by most music publications and fans. But there were whispers that the sessions had also produced a double album tentatively titled Star Wars. The whispers faded as Adams and The Cardinals released the superb Cardinology in 2008, and a year later, Adams announced his shocking retirement from the music industry.

But damn it all, a world without an endless onslaught of Ryan Adams material is a dull world indeed.

For someone who writes songs like most people breathe air, retirement was bound to turn into a sabbatical. In the fall of 2010, Adams announced that the lost double album from those 2007 sessions would finally see release independently as Volume III/IV. Featuring Catherine Popper on bass and vocals, Neal Casal on guitar and vocals, Brad Pemberton on the drums, Jon Graboff on steel guitar and Jamie Candiloro on keys, Volume III/IV has been described by Adams as a “concept rock opera about the 80's, ninjas, cigarettes, sex, and pizza.” In other circles, the record has been called a sequel to Rock N Roll, a sequel to Cold Roses, a self-indulgent dabbling in “dork rock,” and a collection of throwaways & b-sides.

In reality, it's much simpler. Volume III/IV is a cross-section of the formidable sequoia that is the career arc of Ryan Adams. It's a logical forward progression from Cardinology, on which Adams offered a balance of his rock, jam and acoustic personas. Of a similar vein, Volume III/IV offers a satisfying sampling of every Ryan Adams flavor. The songs are solid, the production is suitably raw and loud, and the performances are energetic and audibly heartfelt.

The delivery sets this album apart from prior efforts. Adams' gift as a writer has never been in question, but his meandering focus has at times stymied songs from fully blossoming. A missing bridge here, a sloppy voice crack there, a lazy acoustic caricature of self every now and again.

Not here.

The refreshing aspect of Volume III/IV is the overarching sense of urgency crackling from the songs, as though the gang had a premonition that this would someday serve as a “comeback” album. The spark is immediate in the insistent guitars splattering blood and guts all over “Breakdown Into The Resolve.” It’s in the thunderous, impeccable timing between Casal and Pemberton, melody and rhythm dueling throughout “Lovely and Blue” and “No.” It’s in the shimmering pop of “Stop Playing With My Heart” and the bludgeoning assault of “Users.” It’s in the howling, impassioned lead vocal on “Sewers at the Bottom of the Wishing Well.”

Album highpoint “Wasteland” is the perfect storm of lyric, hook and performance, a compact symbol of the record as a whole. It’s a bitter kiss-off to a dissolving relationship – in other words, what Adams does best. Aggressive, arpeggiated guitar gives way to a ragged vocal, which Casal and Popper bolster with solid harmonies. One of the album’s finest lines – “You don’t impress me and I find you slightly terrifying” – transitions the song into its grand finale, a steady crescendo built upon Pemberton’s nifty snare cadence and the acidic declaration, “It’s your wasteland / You have it, it’s yours.”

And, oh, the musicianship, honed to perfection through good old-fashioned rehearsal. “Numbers” somehow evolves from a chunky palm-muted verse and silly “We’re fucked!” refrain into a lush, emotive bridge featuring lead vocals from Popper; “Icebreaker” similarly transforms from a furious riff beast into a transcendent confessional floating atop Adams’ falsetto.

But don’t fret, fans of Heartbreaker and Gold. Ryan’s soulful balladeer comes out to play, as well, although be forewarned: Even the gentler numbers have teeth. “Ultraviolet Light” features stabs of chiming electric guitar to bulk up the acoustic backbone; the gorgeous finger-plucked outro of “Gracie” accompanies the mournful lyric, “Hello – I’ve gotta let you go – goodbye”; Graboff’s lap steel adds a tone of complicit resignation to the aptly-titled “Typecast,” a duet between Adams and Popper.

Volume III/IV is a testament to the songwriting force that is Ryan Adams and the invaluable supporting cast that is The Cardinals. It’s also an indictment of the bumbling, gutless music industry dedicated to tangling creativity in red tape. These 21 songs make a mighty strong argument that the other mythical Ryan Adams albums relegated to the vaults deserve to be unleashed. Here’s to hoping (praying, even) that Adams continues to leave the record companies out of the loop and release records on his own.