CD Review of Cardinology by Ryan Adams & the Cardinals
Recommended if you like
Neil Young, Grateful Dead,
the Watson Twins
Lost Highway
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals:

Reviewed by Greg M. Schwartz

he ever-prolific Ryan Adams is back with the follow-up to last year’s acclaimed Easy Tiger, and the new album finds Adams and his top-notch band continuing to perfect their bluesy and emotionally arresting songcraft.

“Born into the Light” kicks it off with a compelling spiritual love letter from Adams to his fans, and it’s a winner. Some folks may find some of Adams’ lyrics trite, such as when he sings “For everyone alone I wish you faith and hope / And all the strength to cope / To be your own best friend / Have confidence and keep the faith.” But anyone who’s caught one of Adams’ dynamic live shows in the past couple years knows that he means it. The inner photo of Adams napping peacefully on top of a pizza box on a guitar case while almost snuggling a slice of the pizza relays much about the way Adams wears his heart on his sleeve.

Songs like “Go Easy,” “Fix It” and “Cobwebs” are in a similar vein, featuring Adams and the Cardinals’ now trademark blend of bluesy melodicism. Adams’ heartfelt vocals are the real showcase here since most of the studio cuts don’t get into the powerful sound of his live shows.

“Magick” is the rocker that best approximates the band’s dynamic live sound, with the lyrics even conjuring that vibe when Adams sings “Let your body sway / Listen to the music play / It’s magick, it’s magick.” That live magic is only sporadically sprinkled on the studio tracks, but there’s no doubt most of them will open up more on stage. The album gives listeners a chance to appreciate the songwriting though, and Cardinology is strong here.

“Natural Ghost” has an ethereal sound that fits Adams so well, as pedal steel and acoustic guitars blend for a gorgeous sound. “Sink Ships” delves into a bit of social commentary with a “war is over” line that recalls John Lennon. The song builds nicely, with the chorus picking up for a swayable groove. “Like Yesterday” is a melancholy sort of tune, but with a comforting vibe and intermeshing guitars that give the music some complexity. “Stop” closes the album with a plaintive piano ballad

Ryan Adams

The unsung star of the album is pedal steel maestro Jon Graboff, whose playing elevates the band’s sound to a higher plane. The main flaw is that the songs are too darn short. Six of the twelve tunes come in at under three minutes. With an album that clocks in at only 40 minutes and change, it’s hard to understand why these tunes couldn’t each have had another minute or two of exploration. This leads some of the tunes to come off sounding a bit on the adult contemporary side to the untrained ear, such as mellower numbers like “Let Us Down Easy,” “Evergreen” and “Crossed Out Name.” But they’re not adult contemporary, they’re just more countrified than the rock stuff.

The production value is strong – Graboff and guitarist Neil Casal have made an art out of blending their guitars and harmony vocals with Adams’ guitar and vocals to create one of the richest sounds in music today. But drummer Brad Pemberton and bassist Chris “Spacewolf” Feinstein, such a dynamic rhythm section live, are mostly held in check in the studio. Cardinology oddly fails to do real justice to what a powerful live band the Cardinals are.

Adams knows what he wants, though, so he must have agreed with producer Tom Schick on the arrangements. If the idea is to entice listeners to come see the show to hear how the tunes really want to sound, then Adams may be on to something. At the very least, it’s another strong collection of tunes for one of modern music’s most emotionally honest and talented troubadours.

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