Ryan Adams & The Cardinals Follow the Lights [EP]

[Lost Highway; 2007]

Styles: country, blues, alternative
Others: Norah Jones, Josh Ritter, Van Morrison

If you’re like me, then you’ve got those liberal, middle-aged parents who still know how to dress well, and who like to have a glass of Merlot on the terrace and think, “Yeah, I still got it.” And if you’re like me, then you know Follow The Lights is the perfect EP to get them for Christmas.

The EP delivers, but it delivers in the kind of slow-groove surround-sound way that places it nicely between the new Alicia Keys record and the Sumatra gift basket at Starbucks. “Dear John,” for example, is a sorrowful slow-burn of a closer that first appeared as a duet with Norah Jones on 2005’s Jacksonville City Nights, a track that could make even the most incredulous listener a little weak in the knees. The new version is, more or less, exactly the same, keeping the smoky piano but this time dropping the restrained yearn of Ms. Jones in favor of the good-but-forgettable backup vocals of Cardinals guitarist Neal Casal. There’s nothing wrong with making the kind of streamlined soulfulness Starbucks caters to -- if that's what you’re going for -- but if you’re going to make Starbucks music, you've got to follow through. Why Adams chose to re-record the song without Norah Jones is lost on me.

It’s true that Adams has always been a stylistic wild card, jumping from solo to orchestral, from country to punk. So, while the seven-song EP features only one truly new song (the title track), Adams and his boys should be lauded for making a record that is narratively and musically cohesive. This format has done well to improve tracks like “This Is It,” transforming it from the angsty pop-punk of his album Rock N Roll to a driving track that flutters around Adams’ pure belting. However, all the rawness and originality that made Adams’ 2003 cover of “Wonderwall” so heartrending are lacking on his cover of Alice In Chains’ “Down In A Hole.” Whereas Adams tastefully quoted “Wonderwall” in his bare-bones version, it seems that The Cardinals compelled him to simply shoehorn-in the word “country” into Alice in Chains’ “power ballad.” Indeed, his vocal performance certainly gives the late Layne Staley a run for his money, so why cushion lyrics like “Look at me now/ A man who won’t let himself be” with dramatic rock piano and two kinds of guitar? Just as his snarl is about to reach into your chest and rip your heart out, it’s shoved out of the way by too-many, too-produced instruments.

And it is perhaps the way Adams steps aside in favor of his band — which, in theory, is not a bad thing — that is Follow the Lights’ greatest flaw. The record is focused around country/blues ballads with lyrics that compel you to feel their suffering. But with each instrument vying for a big sound on nearly every track, you find yourself more wanting to be moved by the music than actually being moved by it. Heavy instrumentation is wonderful, so long as it’s selective and original. In the end, the listener wants to feel the pain, not the harmonious, standard chord progressions. An honest love song like “Follow the Lights” would really knock the wind out of you if conveyed through a few emotive instruments, rather than saturated by fantastic production value.

It is Adams’ versatile and unshakably passionate voice that guides the listener through the record. From phrases so delicate you fear your next breath will shatter them, to his trademark unrestrained howl, Adams, like each of his bandmates, is a true master of his instrument. But the too-perfect mix dumbs down the voicings, shaving off the edges and turning Follow the Lights into an EP that is more heard than experienced.

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