WHISKEYTOWN Strangers Almanac (Geffen)

Before he became a whiny, petulant solo artist in desperate need of an editor, Ryan Adams was a member of Whiskeytown, and “Strangers Almanac”, absent apostrophe and all, was the second of their three albums, originally released in 1997. Hearing it for the first time, following its recent deluxification, it’s tempting to view the album as so accomplished that it risks being dismissed as generic Americana, but that’s probably more a comment on how closely the genre has cleaved to this template over the past decade or so. Although nowhere near its equal, “Strangers Almanac” comes from a similar time and place as Wilco’s magnificent “Being There”, where raw country meets “Exile”-era Stones raunch with a side order of bruised, hungover boy sensitivity.

There’s greatness in the swooning ennui of “Inn Town” and the raucous “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”. “Houses On The Hill” models a somewhat stilted, convoluted sentimentality, and perhaps that’s what saps “Strangers Almanac” of its full potency: Adams never takes the straight route to an image if he can wend through winding verbiage instead, and so what direct emotional punch these songs may have is pulled because you’re too busy trying to decode the meaning of lines like “Well I found a bunch of letters that were written for the fellow who broke your momma’s heart”. “Turn Around” is more like rock ‘n’ roll, though, all haunted minor keys, and “Waiting To Derail” is pungent and storming. When they’re good, Whiskeytown are a potent amalgam of weeping steel, smoky fiddles and blasted rock ‘n’ roll, but there’s a lot to wade through to get there.

This generally credible vinyl reissue sounds a bit strident on the ears in places, but does append a whole side’s worth of radio sessions, although these add little to the “Strangers Almanac” experience other than length and repetition.

Ryan Adams