Whiskeytown is one of those iconic alt.country bands of the 1990s that I took my sweet time getting around to checking out. I guess I'm still forming my opinions, but generally the word is pretty good. The solo stuff that various members have put out has been pretty interesting, and their old pre-breakup albums definitely have their charm. In the final analysis, Whiskeytown were pretty darn rock-oriented, but they were way less pretentious than Wilco, that's for sure!
Whiskeytown "Angels" (Mood Food, 1995)
A 4-song EP.
Whiskeytown "Faithless Street" (Mood Food, 1996/Outpost, 1998)
Re-released on Outpost with several extra tracks.
Whiskeytown "Theme For a Trucker" (Bloodshot, 1997)
Another 4-song EP.
Early demo recordings dating back to the band's inception. Taking some of their musical cues from the '80s cowpunk scene, Ryan Adams and Co. play a deceptively rough-edged, raggedy-ass brand of alterna-country... In reality, they have some pretty interesting songs, and even while skirting WTS territory, they're pretty engaging. This album seems to re-surface from time to time on different indie labels. Not great or immortal, but worth tracking down just to see where it all started out.
Whiskeytown "In Your Wildest Dreams" (Outpost, 1997)
This promo-only 4-song EP opens with a blaring, John Mellencamp-ish rocker, followed by another rock tune, with a slightly more interesting theme ("Rain Won't Help You When It's Over"). Next is a nice bitter acoustic ballad, "Factory Girl" (not the old Stones song), which proves to be the highlight of the disc, as the closing track, "Wither, I'm A Flower," is a meandering, mumbled, droning toss-off track. Released in conjunction with the Stranger's Almanac album, this made pretty clear that rocknroll was deifinitely on the agenda, in addition to the twangy stuff.
Musically speaking, this is probably their best album, and their most competently country (with willful excursions into various rock styles...) Ryan Adams is the principal songwriter, writing either by himself or in collaboration with Caitlin Cary or Phil Wandscher. The lyrics run the gamut from pretentiously wan and clever to self-indulgent and spacy, and they uniformly betray Adams' restlessness with the hick music format... or perhaps just with songwriting itself. It just doesn't seem very cohesive or heartfelt... Then again, maybe that was the whole point, not taking it all too seriously. It's a pretty album, though, if you don't think too hard about its more vapid aspects.
Feelgood alt-pop with a faint, lingering trace of twang. Whiskeytown's final, posthumously-released album shows songwriter Ryan Adams moving solidly into the more expansive horizons of his future solo career. Nothing on here is as edgy or immediate as his solo work or as unregenterately twangy as the band's early work; I wouldn't go as far as to say this is an unchallenging record, but it certainly is easy on the ears... It's also probably their best record -- nice, pleasant to listen to, although a bit gauzy and narcotic in its overall effect. Take only as directed. And enjoy.
As I mentioned above, I never really tracked Whiskeytown all that carefully, although I have friends who were totally ga-ga over them when the band was still together... This first solo outing by singer Ryan Adams was the first Whiskeytown-related album that really made much of an impression on me... and it's a doozy! It kicks off with "To Be Young", a picture-perfect homage to Blonde On Blonde era Dylan, and continues on in a Zimmerman-esque vein through a series of songs that are alternately sentimental and vengeful, with concisely executed production that ranges from picked-bone sparse to eerily lush... It's a rock-country crossover with an album-wide cohesion that sneaks up on you, full of impressive, glittering nuggets of songwriting and soulful, catchy guitar twangery. There's also a super-sweet duet with Emmylou Harris, which is worth the price of admission alone. Very nice stuff, and very well written. Recommended!
This disc seems almost tailormade to alienate the alt.country faithful, and shed the baggage of his past. There are still a few Dylanisms at the start, but most of this is sort of introspective, folk-ish pop songcrafting. In vocal timbre he reminds me of Loudon Wainwright III (or, by extension, Loudon's son, Rufus Wainwright...) On occasion he overplays his knowledge of the pop past: "Tina Toledo's Street Walkin' Blues," for example, is just a little too Sticky Fingers, and the baldness of the swipe is distracting. (Besides, hipsters writing about hookers -- yawn.) Overall though, this is a good album, nicely sculpted and quite listenable, though only tangentially "country." I suspect that although his alt.country fans were put off by this, that the record's cachet will grow as time goes by. I'm not wild about this, but it's certainly worth checking out.
Although this disc is billed as an odds-and-ends demo collection, it's actually much more cohesive (and satisfying) than his last album, Gold... (At least Adams isn't still trying to remake Sticky Fingers on this one...) One catchy, moody song after another, evenly balancing his country and poppy-melodic tendencies... There are a few stylistic surprises, such as the Cars-like introduction to the modern-rock "Starting To Hurt" and a strong streak of U2-ishness throughout, but nothing that should cause his loyal fans any real dismay. Lyrically, numerous fire-and-smoke references suggest the spiritual aftermath of September 11th weighed heavily on Adams, but he approaches the subject elliptically and skillfully, and it the metaphysics don't get in the way of the music. All in all, this is a very nice record, alluring and well worth checking out.
Caitlin Cary "Waltzie" (Yep Roc, 2000)
A 5-song EP.
A surprising, poppy outing for Ms. Caitlin... As a Whiskeytowner, she had a tendency to be a bit shrieky -- here, she takes a smoother path, following in the footsteps of Mekons frontlady Sally Timms who moved out of her twangcore phase into mistier pop balladeering. Like Timms, Cary appears to be chasing the ghosts of June Tabor and Linda Thompson, and likewise, it suits her well. The songwriting is also an improvement over her country-themed Whiskeytown material; without the WTS baggage, Cary proves capable of crafting fairly smooth, even haunting pop material. She even dabbles in Phil Spector-style Brill Building pop. All in all, a nice record, although longtime fans may be a bit mystified. The CD also comes (or came?) with a 4-song mini-CD with much country-er material, including an excellent duet with Ryan Adams. Good records, worth checking out.
Hick Music Index