Whiskeytown broke up in 1999, partly because of the record
company problems that long delayed the release of their last record.
Three years after it was recorded and just before Gold, Whiskeytown
leader Ryan Adams' second solo record, came out, Pneumonia was
released. Pneumonia is a fine example of Adams' ability to mix rootsy
authenticity with pop song craft. It shows Adams making the transition
from roots rocker to the more mainstream rocker he is on Gold.
Pneumonia is a sprawling, varied work that is consistently likable and
good and is often very good.
Pneumonia often has the timeless feel of classic pop. It has a
bunch of good, sad ballads. The Ballad Of Carol Lynn is like a simple
song ballad by The Band. Adams' harmonica and piano and Mike Daly's
subtle, evocatic sonic effects create a basic, heartfelt sound as
Adams sings about ending a relationship that's "gotten weird". Adams
embodies Reasons To Lie, so "tired of wanting you" that he can barely
muster the energy to be heard. Under Your Breath is very minimal.
Adams' melancholy vocal is underlined by quiet orchestral instruments.
Adams and Elton John have recently announced their admiration for
each other. A few songs on Pneumonia are reminiscent of Elton's very
early countryish pop(that's meant as a compliment). On Jacksonville
Skyline, Daly subtly adds steel guitar and a number of other
instruments as Adams simply plays a man who now longingly remembers a
hometown with "an adundance of inherited sadness" he had gladly
escaped. Don't Be Sad, written and played with Smashing Pumpkins
guitarist James Iha, has a bit too much of a Seals and Crofts vibe for
my liking but it's undeniably appealing pop with open, likable vocals
and guitar. Easy Hearts, with good, unshowy harmonies by Adams and
Caitlin Cary, is a nice, modest tale of a person who "had a pretty
hard life for such an easy heart" and is looking for a night of
Whiskeytown have been stuck in the alt country category but only
a few songs among Pneumonia's countryish pop and rock songs are
particularly alternative. With its romantic images of singing birds
and stars and strings and woodwinds, Paper Moon stands out like a lush
Rufus Wainwright song. What The Devil Wanted has spare piano and
idiosyncratic percussion and quirky, haunted lyrics("I sleep the sleep
of wounded sheep") that could belong to Elliott Smith.
Adams brings to mind the tough, bright but troubled persona of
Gram Parsons and Steve Earle on Pneumonia's sad, subdued country
rockers. His songs are simple but create vivid images of his mostly
sad moods. On Sit & Listen To The Rain, Adams quietly sings that he
"used to feel so much, now I just feel dumb" but Adams and Daly's
guitars and Cary's harmonies add a good shimmer. Only occasionally
does Adams sound like a lesser version of his heroes. My Hometown is
like a Bruce/Steve Earle imitation and his story of a place where
"everybody's feeling it bad" especially brings to mind Springsteen's
similarly subdued song of the same name.
Pneumonia also has some light, likable rockers. Don't Wanna Know
Why is a breezy dis of a prospective suitor("don't wanna know why you
like me, I don't care") given good shading by Cary's background
vocals. With horns and Beach Boys/Three Dog Night style keyboards,
Mirror Mirror is particularly perky and charming. Crazy About You is a
sturdy, good natured country rock love song. With Cary playing Lisa
Germano's violin role, Bar Lights has the good time feel of a John
Mellancamp song like Check It Out.
At the very least, Whiskeytown's final CD is worth owning for
anyone interested in Ryan Adams' career and his strong songwriting.
Pneumonia compares favorably to Adams' other Whiskeytown and solo
work. Pneumonia's not always great but it's consistently good.
Pneumonia has a variety of songs within the pop, country and rock
genres and Whiskeytown is likable in all the different musical styles.