An expanded version of an underrated gem by Ryan’s old band
Certain records sideswipe your psyche—where every twist of every note somehow slithers into your nerves and becomes as familiar as your own breathing. It might be the time in your life you discover a particular album, or the mood you were in when you first heard one of the songs, or the way some stranger’s voice speaks your own mind just closely enough to demand stunned reverence. For me, Strangers Almanac was one of those records. Found in the jettison bin of my college radio station, consecrated the night I saw Whiskeytown play for eight people in a shabby Houston club, and celebrated with porch-lit cigars and sips of Southern Comfort in the witching hour of many nights that followed, it was and remains one of my all-time favorites.
So its expansion and reissue this year felt a bit disconcerting at first. From the lazy opening notes of “Inn Town” to the closing jumble of “Not Home Anymore,” its an organic, flowing record that doesn’t need much else, let alone the inevitable parade of half-steps and hiccups expected from any collection of Adams outtakes. Still, most fans will feel a wound-up hunger to devour them upon arrival. Culled primarily from the “Barn’s On Fire” sessions that preceded the album’s recording, the previously unreleased tracks now included serve to flesh out the story of a band that unwound far too quickly, and to fill out an oeuvre that by all measures was never big enough.
While only a few of the looser outtakes would’ve fit on the intensely crafted original album, they’re listenable throughout and serve as further evidence of the band’s excellence. Caitlin Cary and Phil Wandscher’s presence grows in retrospect. The absence of Cary’s lacey fiddle and tender vocals on an alternate version of “16 Days” highlights the sturdy ease of her accompaniment on the album track, while Wandscher’s guitar kicks through “10 Seconds” and belies the musical context in which punk rocker Adams learned how to channel his intensity into textured heartland rock.
Adams’ more youthful vocal performances will shock later-era Adams fans. While Adams’ current singing style favors moments of higher register quasi-mewling and wild dynamics, his Whiskeytown work has the smoky mumble of an older soul and the rustic cadence of a Southern spirit more at home in the turgid mosquito air of a Carolina-tavern parking lot in summer than the zipping lights of a limo careening to some big-city afterparty. Adams’ eager striving to portray the depths of his sorrow in these songs has a warm innocence that only peeks out through the scars and pricey outfits of his later work; he was so much older then—he’s younger than that now.
The collection’s greatest revelation is the new angle it offers on the majestic “Avenues.” Few have ever portrayed the gap between the lonely and the loved the way Adams does with the devastating lyric “all the sweethearts of the world are out dancing in the places where me and all my friends go to hide our faces.” And, sonically, the song’s juxtaposition of spartan atmosphere and emotional cascade ranks it alongside Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and The Replacements’ “Within Your Reach.” The emotive acoustic reading on the second disc overpowers almost all of the other rough cuts, and an alluring cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” reveals Cash’s masterwork as both a thematic and musical antecedent to “Avenues.” Adams cuts the song with the same rhythmic slices and the same rich, unspooled baritone. Stunningly, the final album version of “Avenues” may outshine even its dignified ancestor.
While Adams’ many students will appreciate the additional musical clues unearthed here, all will relish the chance to rediscover Strangers Almanac itself—the moonbeam steel guitars of “Dancing With the Women at the Bar,” the sensitive Eisenhower-era vignette of “Houses on the Hill,” Alejandro Escovedo’s ragged cameo on “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” the lovelorn ache of “Turn Around” and the coiled drama of “Waiting to Derail.” Bridging the more humble pastoral sketches of Faithless Street and the polished, late-to-be-unveiled Pneumonia, Strangers Almanac is the beating heart of Whiskeytown’s catalog and one of the best albums of its genre and era.