Circa 2003, you could find me in poorly lit, beer-swathed dens and taverns, talking about music… endlessly. The Strokes were pretty much on top of the world — I was in the midst of my trifecta of Strokes concerts I’d see in my life, having caught the Chicago one and yet to come upon the one in Charlotte or Indianapolis.
The Strokes did things differently, too. Well, they did things differently in a very ironic way — they stripped things DOWN, relinquishing DJ scratches, keyboard and patriotic drama, in favor of a brand of garage rock delivered with a physical plainness that keenly belied its melodic brilliance and rhythmic swagger.
And then, of course, every other band started doing this too. And maybe that’s the curse of Rock N Roll, Ryan Adams’ fourth album, about which a Playlouder critic commented that “it’s just a shame he… didn’t try something a bit more progressive than ‘Rock’n’Roll.’” Well, making it more progressive wouldn’t be “playing it louder,” but that’s beside the point, I guess.
So bare-bones simplicity and directness is good when a suave quintet of leather-clad city slickers do it but not when a folk-rock veteran takes a stab at it? That seems to be the message we’re gleaning here from the press, which, in some parts, recognized the piercing, guttural power of Rock N Roll, and in other parts seems to have wanted a duplication of their Amnesiac disc. But Rock N Roll is a brilliant rock record for roughly the same reason Is This it is and that is just that very element of unadorned production plainness that exudes confidence and vouchers for the songs it has in tow.
And just as with Is This it, Rock N Roll is actually more quirky and full of character than it initially lets on. The mix is grunge rock all the way but remember, Adams hadn’t ever MADE a grunge record before. Everything had been, by comparison, quite acoustic and folky. With this being the case, his vocals transmit on songs like “This is it” and “1974” with a special kind of emphasis, as if he’s singing his first record all over again, in enticingly unfamiliar sonic territory. “1974” also helps establish a fairly commendable versatility of lyrical subject matter, at least by Adams standards, a bizarre and glorious ode to the year he was born with the simple chorus “Just like the day I was born / It’s 1974 / It’s 1974”. All the accusations of rehash and ordinariness fall flat too when you observe the complex, dissonant chord progression and phrasing unorthodoxies he employs in songs like this. The chorus of “Shallow,” for instance, ends at kind of an odd spot, plunging back into that T. Rex-inspired chorus guitar run which implies that sure he likes classic rock but he’s having FUN doing it himself.
And again, the mix of Rock N Roll is grunge all the way, like Soul Asylum with the amped-up snap of Stone Temple Pilots, roughly, so in no way is this something that has been done before, particularly from the singer/songwriter standpoint of a Ryan Adams record, or anything thereabouts. And sure, Adams gets a little whiny and self-centered. But come on, you wouldn’t have it any other way — it’s his emotion that feeds his craft on this project and his plaintive narratives smack of genuineness and purposefulness, even if you do think he’s overanalyzing others, which probably wouldn’t be too out-of-the-question.
And the significance of these songs as well as the purity and beauty of them are rendered within their simplicity, by way of their simplicity. That’s what lots of the critics missed about these cuts. Plus, “Boys”; with its unique lyricism of “I’m as lonely as boys / I’m as lonely as boys / I’m as lonely as monkeys / Playing with toys”, in addition to being an utterly astonishing song, is so off-center and marvelously original that, you’d think, any claims of retro or plainness would be annihilated on the spot. Personally, I bet a lot of people “reviewing” the album didn’t even get to this track, or they were still too enamored with Jamiroquai’s velvet suit and dance moves to know a good, raw hook when they heard it.
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