Eclectic Ryan Adams keeps fans guessing

New on CD

Music: in concert, CDs

December 25, 2003|By Eric R. Danton | Eric R. Danton,HARTFORD COURANT

Ryan Adams is so prolific he records albums between albums.

And since his taste is varied and eclectic, there's never any telling how his next project will sound. He has dabbled in alt-country, '70s-style rock and louder '70s-style rock, claims he's recording an alt-metal album as part of a group called Werewolph and has shelved at least two completed records.

That was nearly the fate of his latest project, a mopey two-EP set called Love Is Hell. Lost Highway wasn't keen to release the downhearted tunes as the follow-up to Adams' 2001 album, Gold, but the label agreed to put them on a pair of EPs in exchange for an alternate full-length record, which turned out to be the stellar Rock N Roll. It's not the first time the label has accommodated Adams -- Lost Highway released Demolition last year, a collection of demos culled from other projects the singer-songwriter had been working on.

It's impressive that the same songwriter who released Rock N Roll is responsible for Love Is Hell. The former is loud and brash, while the latter's songs are dark, ruminative confessions -- the kind you'd write late on a lonely, rainy night, if you wrote songs like Adams'.

After a slow start, Love Is Hell, Pt. 1 picks up with the jangly guitar and melancholy lyrics to "This House Is Not For Sale." Adams also includes a spare, rootsy cover of the Oasis tune "Wonderwall," and the song shows startling depth when stripped of the Gallagher brothers' baggage. Each of the last three tunes -- "The Shadowlands," "World War 24" and "Avalanche" -- is more beautiful than the one before it, and the mournful piano chords, stark acoustic guitars and Adams' tired-sounding vocals combine to set up the seven tunes on Love Is Hell, Pt. 2.

The second disc is the stronger one. There's a jazz-ballad feel to "My Blue Manhattan" to open the disc, and he twists the knife a bit on "Please Do Not Let Me Go," when he sings "True love ain't that hard to find/Not that you will ever know." There's a sly Rolling Stones reference on "English Girls Approximately," which, fittingly, includes background vocals from Marianne Faithful. Jon Clearly contributes a subtle Wurlitzer part to "Hotel Chelsea Nights," which features a vivid refrain that repeats as the song fades.

It's an open debate whether the quality of Adams' songs suffers in proportion to the quantity, and Love Is Hell could bolster either claim. But whether you regard Adams as an original genius or merely an able reinterpreter of existing styles, his music is consistently among the most interesting stuff available.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing Co. newspaper.

Ryan Adams

Love Is Hell, Pts. 1 & 2 (Lost Highway) ***

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