Ashes & Fire
PAX AM / Capitol (2011)
By Alex Biles, University of Michigan
“Twelve elegant country songs,” Ryan Adams told Q Magazine back in July, bluntly summing up his latest retreat to the studio. If ratings hinged on pre-release promises, our auteur would be flirting with perfection (excepting the fact the record contains a mere 11 elegant country songs).
In a decade that’s featured an average of over one full-length release per year, Adams has alienated about as many fans as he’s made. A slew of hit-and-miss releases followed in the shadows of 2000’s solo debut and breakout, Heartbreaker, ranging musically from the Dead-head and Harvest-era echoes of 2005’s Cold Roses to the “sci-fi heavy metal” of last year’s Orion.
On Ashes & Fire, Adams sounds as remarkably comfortable as he does confident. His mojo appears restored, and penchant for frivolous experimentation, quelled. Here, he plays to his strengths by delivering a exceptionally digestible record that fans will find delightfully familiar and economical, clocking in at a satisfying 43 minutes.
Consider the string-laden sunshine on “Chains of Love” or the wonderful waltz of the title track, which quite possibly may carry enough steam to power a couple of tugboats down the Mississippi. And Adams isn’t afraid to add the casual oomph, like the funky Bill Withers organs on “Invisible Riverside.” Elsewhere, the soul of “Kindness,” is as much old-school Adams as it is new-school Al Green.
While the eminently listenable Ashes & Fire contains moments that evoke Adams’ mastery of records past, there’s no “Come Pick Me Up,” or anything remotely jaw dropping. Nonetheless, there is much to be proud of on this collection, which shapes up to be Adams’ most impressive accomplishment since Cold Roses and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.