Tuesday, 23 November 2010

“Strangers Almanac” by WHISKEYTOWN. A Review Of The 2008 DELUXE EDITION 2CD Reissue.

"…Don’t You Ask Me How I’m Doing…When Everything I Do Says I Miss You…"

WHISKEYTOWN were:
(David) RYAN ADAMS – Acoustic, Electric Guitars, Piano, Banjo, Percussion, Lead Vocals and Principal song Writer
PHIL WANDSCHER – Electric Guitar, Organ, Percussion and Backing Vocals
CAITLIN CARY – Violin and Lead/Backing Vocals
JEFF RICE – Bass Guitar
STEVEN TERRY – Drums, Percussion and Backing Vocals

“Strangers Almanac” was the 2nd album for North Carolina country-rock band Whiskeytown and first appeared to warm acclaim in the summer of 1997. “Faithless Street” from two years earlier had been their excellent and promising debut and the messy release of “Pneumonia”, their 3rd and last album recorded in 1997, but not released until April 2001 was a few years away yet. (They actually disbanded in 1999 and both Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary went solo). Produced, engineered and mixed by JIM SCOTT, “Strangers Almanac” sounded like a band not just finding their feet, but a group ‘arriving’ – and big time. This 31 March 2008, 2CD DELUXE EDITION, is a major overhaul of that record (it’s been available Stateside since January 2008) and for my money, it’s already a strong contender for REISSUE OF THE YEAR.

A few things came together in 1997; Ryan Adams’ gifted song writing had really begun to flourish into something special, the band was talented and playing beautifully, while producer Scott seemed to know exactly how to tap into the band's psyche and get their ‘Whiskeytown’ sound. Jim Scott would turn out to be a big part of the album’s ‘feel’ and success. His truly beautiful production job on Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” from 1994 had won him an Engineering Award – and combining that same loose, gritty ‘live’ playing with a sympathetic sound engineer gave every track on the album a very real power and emotional punch. I mention the production a lot because the original CD I’ve had all these years has always sounded superb – but this TED JENSEN master is something else! Although the difference in the mastering is ever so subtle, the effect isn’t. The SOUND IS NOW SIMPLY AWESOME! The album literally explodes out of the speakers in the most fully crystal clear manner ever! And listening to the acoustics of “16 Days” or the twin rough and ready electric guitars of the magnificent “Everything I Do” now (lyrics above), is like hearing them anew – it feels like there’s an improvement in every instrument! You can suddenly hear them all! It seems that this time around, a gentle tweaking has brought out how well recorded they were in the first place! I don’t think I’ve heard an album more perfectly improved on as this one is. And if that’s not enough, there’s 24 Previously Unreleased Tracks thrown in too! Let’s get to that…

Here’s the breakdown:

DISC 1 (70:36 minutes):
Tracks 1 to 13 are the original album from 31 July 1997, released on CD as Outpost Recordings/Mood Food Records OPD 30005
Tracks 14 to 18 are 5 previously unreleased live performances from 10 September 1997, recorded/broadcast for “Brave New World” on KCRW-FM Radio in Santa Monica, California

DISC 2 (77:13 minutes)
Track 1: Indian Gown (Non-LP Track)
Track 2: 16 Days (Acoustic)
Track 3: Somebody Remembers The Rose (Acoustic)
Track 4: Avenues (Acoustic)
Track 5: Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight (Acoustic)
Track 6: Houses On The Hill (Early Version)
Track 7: My Heart Is Broken (Non-LP Track)
Track 8: I Still Miss Someone (Acoustic) [a Johnny Cash cover]
Track 9: Kiss & Make-Up (Non-LP Track)
Track 10: Barn’s On Fire ((Non-LP Track)
Track 11: Dancing With The Women At The Bar (Early Version)
Track 12: Dreams (Non-LP Track) [a Fleetwood Mac cover]
Track 13: Breathe (Non-LP Track)
Track 14: Wither, I’m A Flower (issued on the promotional-only “In Your Wildest Dreams” EP in 1997 and then on the Soundtrack to “Hope Floats” in 1998)
Track 15: Luxury Liner (Non-LP Track) [a Gram Parsons cover]
Track 16: Theme For A Trucker (issued on the Soundtrack to Wim Wender’s film “The End Of Violence” in 1997)
Track 17: Streets Of Sirens (Non-LP Track)
Track 18: Turn Around (Alternate Early Version)
Track 19: 10 Seconds (Non-LP Track)
Track 20: Ticket Time (Alternate Early Version)
Track 21: The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over (Early Version) [a Alejandro Escovedo cover]

Disc 1:
Recorded for US Radio, the 5 previously unreleased tracks tagged onto the end of Disc 1 are I feel the weakest stuff on here. Not only does the sound take a major nosedive, the performances seem dull, like the band is disinterested somehow. Having said that, “Nurse With The Pills” and “I Don’t Care What You Think About Me” are new and don’t appear anywhere else, so they’ll be welcomed by fans. But for me, the real meat ‘n’ potatoes starts on Disc 2…

Disc 2:
Excepting the soundtrack songs, all tracks on Disc Two are Previously Unreleased and were recorded in two studio stints known as the “Barn On Fire” sessions (Tracks 1, 3, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 21) and the “Baseball Park” sessions (Tracks 2 and 5). The “Barn On Fire” sessions were recorded in Durham in North Carolina and acted as a run-through and rehearsal for the “Strangers Almanac” album, while the “Baseball Park” sessions were put down in Modern Recording studios in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
(There were further recordings at Chapel Hill and tracks from that session turn up on the extended version of “Faithless Street” put out by Outpost in 1998. OPRD-30002 has 11 added tracks to the album’s initial 10 and is a good starting point after this album).

Thankfully the superb quality of sound on the album continues on the double-album’s worth of unreleased material on Disc 2. As you can see, there are 4 cover versions with the rest of the tracks written by RYAN ADAMS. Tracks 6, 7 and 18 are co-written with CAITLIN CARY while PHIL WANDSCHER shares the co-write on 1, 3, 19 and 20.

The ‘acoustic’ nature of about half of the tracks on Disc 2 make it feel like an extended ‘unplugged’ session at times. And this is not a bad thing at all, because these aren’t poorly recording home demos or half-finished rough versions – they’re properly recording studio pieces, so the sound quality that came through on the album does so here too and it makes a huge difference to the listen. If anything, some of the tracks are all the more beautiful for being stripped down like this - they have an almost eerie “Nebraska” feel to them, real and of the moment. The production quality is fantastic. I’m reminded of Rick Rubin’s stunning work on the five Johnny Cash American Recordings albums.

Track 2 is typical, just when I thought “16 Days” couldn’t get any more touching, this initial ‘acoustic take’ of the song – in my opinion - aces the finished version – it’s just breathtaking and fans will adore it. The brilliant “Breathe” and the FACES feel to “The Rain Won’t Help When It’s Over” are rocking highlights, as is “Barn’s On Fire”. Both “10 Seconds” and “Ticket Time” kick ass as well – great band efforts. The opener is a pretty little song about a pretty little girl in an “Indian Gown” with really tasty guitar work featured - a quality track most bands would kill a close relative to have. The band’s cover version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” isn’t great but the solo acoustic take of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” is lovely. The full on countrified “Kiss & Make-Up” and “Luxury Liner” are impressive too with Bill Ladd’s complimentary pedal steel work on “Kiss & Make-Up” being particularly sweet. It’s astonishing really that the quality across all the tracks is so damn good – I’ll be listening to these a lot - I know it – and not treating them like they were ‘interesting’ – play them once and then leave them on the shelf.

To sum up: this is a brilliant album given a stunning sonic upgrade and a shed load of previously unreleased material you will want to hear again and again. There have been some truly superb DELUXE EDITION releases in Universal’s catalogue, but this is really something special.

Buy it with confidence and I envy you the journey...

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