It seems like everything you read these days about Ryan Adams centers on his tortured cowboy-poet image rather than his actual talents -- and that's a shame. Adams has a lot more to offer the world than a rumpled Western shirt and a haircut that cries out for a little attention.
Adams is a fine, emotional vocalist and an ace songwriter. Last year's Gold was so convincing and consistent over its 76-minute span that it made one wonder if Adams was even capable of penning a bad tune. Maybe not. The story goes that, during the frenetic making of Gold, Adams assembled enough material to fill four CDs --the 13 "demos" collected here are part of the leftovers. But labeling these songs "demos" is a little misleading: Fans will find that this is just the latest Ryan Adams album, full of songs as well-crafted as anything on Gold. After listening to this mostly acoustic set of tunes, it's tempting to cast Adams in his own unique mold -- that of a trouble-making purveyor of traditionalism. But you don't have to be a country-music fan to appreciate Demolition.
Like Adams, Kim Richey is one of a small group of recording artists who may end up saving country music, and, like Adams (and Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson and the crew behind O Brother, Where Art Thou?), she records for renegade Nashville label Lost Highway. This coterie of musicians is doing some amazing things to the country genre these days -- turning it upside down, inside out, and redefining its former backwoods boundaries. As a result, the music sounds as good as it ever has: simple, fresh, and, most importantly, honest.
Rise is Richey's fourth major-label release and her first for Lost Highway. The record kicks off with "Girl in a Car," a song that conjures up images of some restless romantic driving down the two lanes of heartache. The lyrics here, as on so many Richey vignettes, are delivered in the voice of someone clinging in vain to some drifting memory.
Richey's unique songwriting gift lies in taking simple lyrics and turning them into beautiful songs, but producer Bill Bottrell's heavy-handed imprint keeps the record from being an unqualified success. Rather than leave Richey's beautifully spare, acoustic arrangements alone, he infuses much of the album with enough studio trickery to keep any teenager happy and make any country purist shudder. The album loses something, especially on tracks where Richey shares a songwriting credit with Bottrell. Richey sounds like she's singing someone else's songs.
Overall, though, Richey's songs are so sharp that the spotty production is forgivable. Hopefully, next time around, she'll find a producer talented enough to let her music stand by itself, and she'll realize what few country artists ever do and what every self-respecting folkie has known all along: In any art, especially songwriting, the only voice you ever need is your own. --
Grades: Demolition: A-; Rise: B+