Kid Rock Rock N Roll Jesus

rocknrolljesus I’m going to keep this one short.  With Rock N Roll Jesus, Kid Rock crafted a record that incorporated every possible classic southern rock cliche in one place, and it hit #1, his only album to do so.  So there was obviously a big market for southern rock nostalgia back in 2007, before country music really assumed this mantle and became much rockier.  But even though this album did well financially (without being sold on iTunes, since Kid Rock was feuding with the service at the time), I don’t need to take a lot of time talking about it since you’ve heard it 1,000 times before.

Instead of going through Rock N Roll Jesus track by track and cataloging its legion of influences, I’ll use All Summer Long as a representative sample, even though it’s by far the most obvious one.  In this song, Kid Rock uses the chords, chord pattern and guitar tone from Werewolves of London, actually name checks Sweet Home Alabama and spins a tale straight out of the Bob Seger or Bruce Springsteen story book.  Once the song ends, and I admit that I tap my foot along with it every single time I hear it, I don’t go on to the next song on the album.  I always switch over to a Warren Zevon song, or a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, or a Bob Seger song or a Springsteen song.  And then I don’t come back to Rock N Roll Jesus.

I give Kid Rock props for keeping his concert ticket prices low and making his music accessible to the widest possible audience.  Hopefully some of the people who hear these songs will explore where they came from and move on from this lackluster tribute.

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Ryan Adams Rock N Roll

rocknrollAs its title implies, Rock N Roll was Ryan Adams’ attempt to put out a pure rocker of an album after the success of Gold and the non-success of Demolition, which was basically a collection of outtakes released as an album between Gold and Rock N Roll.

As far as the tone of the album goes, Adams succeeded with the “rock” vibe, but unfortunately slapping more fuzz on the guitars and picking up the tempo does not rescue the songs themselves, which are not nearly as well-drawn as on previous and later releases.  The conventional excuse for why this happened is that Adams was producing music at a frenetic pace, often recording three or four albums worth of material and then releasing it all as EP’s, compilations and, in this case, a full-fledged album.

I think Rock N Roll’s issues can be traced to the more common problem of the follow-up album.  Gold was a big hit and Adams, like a ton of talented songwriters before him, wanted to do something different on his next album.  So he changed the tone, wrote lyrics that weren’t nearly as heartfelt (or at least they didn’t seem like they were, which is part of the problem with Rock N Roll) and packaged it all as a massive change in direction when in reality, if you look at what he’s done since, Rock N Roll was really more of an anomaly.

However, Ryan Adams is a talented guy, and even though the album doesn’t work as a whole, there are some great songs on it, specifically the album-opening This is It and Burning Photographs, which features one of those lyrics I’ve always wondered about – “Everybody is so make believe, it’s true”.  Does this just mean “it’s true that everybody is so make believe” (probably), or “are they so make believe that they have become true”?  A question to ponder . . . At the end of the day, the good songs on Rock N Roll don’t come close to outweighing the mediocre ones, which means I don’t play this CD as much as Adams’ other material.

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss Raising Sand

KC Did you know that Alison Krauss has won more Grammy Awards than any living artist not named Quincy Jones (they’re tied)?  So it might not have been completely unusual for her when this album won the Grammy as 2008’s Album of the Year, but I guarantee Robert Plant was surprised.  (To be fair, Plant did win a best hard rock performance Grammy in 1998 for How High, a song he wrote with some guy named Jimmy Page).

I think that a lot of people not named Robert Plant were also shocked when this album won the Grammy, because it just didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of popular music at the time. (But when has that ever stopped the Grammy Awards?)  What did popular music look like way back in 2008?  Let’s take a look at the ten best selling albums in the U.S. for 2008 (Raising Sand was actually released in the fall of 2007, but its sales from that year aren’t going to effect this argument):

  1. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III ; 2.87 million
  2. Coldplay, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends; 2.14 million
  3. Taylor Swift, Fearless; 2.11 million
  4. Kid Rock, Rock N Roll Jesus; 2.02 million
  5. AC/DC, Black Ice; 1.92 million
  6. Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift; 1.6 million
  7. Metallica, Death Magnetic; 1.57 million
  8. T. I., Paper Trail; 1.52 million
  9. Jack Johnson, Sleep Through the Static; 1.49 million
  10. Beyoncé, I Am … Sasha Fierce; 1.46 million

This is a very . . . interesting . . . list.  (I actually don’t mind Coldplay, but dear Lord, the title of that album . . . )  When I look at this selection of masterpieces, I can almost make the case that, in 2008, there may have been a hole in the market that needed to be filled by an album of sparsely arranged covers sung by an arguably past his prime rocker and a wildly talented but commercially unappreciated bluegrass artist and arranged by a guy named T-Bone.  Almost.

Like a lot of T-Bone Burnett’s more recent productions, Raising Sand is a slow-paced affair with a certain type of atmosphere.  The instruments are too clearly differentiated to call this album’s sound “grimy” – it’s more like a bunch of studio pros are trying to replicate the feel of a Tom Waits album from the early 80’s, which probably isn’t too far off since Trampled Rose is, in fact, a Tom Waits song (but not from the 80’s).  This “distressed” vibe runs through the whole affair, making the album memorable as a whole, but the impact of the individual songs seems to have been sacrificed for the greater good of the project.  Which is a long winded way of saying that a lot of the songs sound alike.

That’s not to say that this isn’t a great album.  In fact, I think that’s a perfect description – it’s a great “album” if you look at Raising Sand as a collection of songs played in a very specific way in order to produce a very particular effect.  Plant and Krauss’ voices are part of the arrangements here and it’s a wonder to hear Plant deliberately dial things back (for the most part) in order to harmonize with Krauss.  I don’t think it’s important to highlight individual songs from Raising Sand – that’s not the point of this album.  Instead, you should play it from start to finish and not worry so much about the mileposts in the middle.

This brings us back to those other albums from 2008, which are mostly built around a couple of hit singles with a bunch of filler.  (Metallica is a glaring exception).  There are no hit singles on Raising Sand and no songs I would skip ahead to hear.  (Conversely, there aren’t any songs I would skip over).  Which is why, for a lot of people at the time, Raising Sand probably was the album of the year and one that will probably still sound great twenty years from now, especially when the weather starts to cool off and you want something soothing on the stereo while you’re sipping a beer by the fire.  It fills that hole.

Robert Earl Keen The Rose Hotel

KC Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen, part of the post-Willie generation of artists that don’t fit squarely within the Nashville system but are too country to be called rock and rollers, played music with Lyle Lovett while the two were schoolmates at Texas A&M in the late 70’s and he would go on to tour with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, so you know he’s got the songwriter pedigree.

On this album from 2009, Keen dips his toes in a lot of different topical waters, writing an entire song about Levon Helm, narrating the end of a long night in Cleveland and commiserating over a missed liaison on the title track.  We’ve also got the Jimmy Buffet sounding Something I Do with its pitch-perfect refrain – “I kind of like just doin’ nothing, it’s something that I do”.

Musically, Keen is all over the map as well, ranging from straight ahead country to island rock, with varying degrees of success.  While there are a bunch of good songs here, as an album The Rose Hotel doesn’t hold together consistently like a lot of Keen’s earlier work, making it a fun listen but not an essential one.

Ryan Adams’ Gold

KC

Released just two weeks after the September 11th attacks, Gold became Ryan Adams’ best selling album due at least in part to the very first track on the album, New York, New York, an ode to lost love that just happens to feature the chorus “I’ll still love you though, New York”.  Obviously, this resulted is heavy radio airplay at the time.  Although I love the song, I don’t associate this album with September 11th because of it.  I do associate Gold with the the early 2000’s in general because quite a few of the songs seem written to appeal directly to slightly confused young men in their 20’s who love classic rock, with enough leftover to accommodate slightly confused young women in their 20’s who love classic rock.  And it’s this factor, plus the “accessible” production that supplanted the more gritty tones of Ryan Adams’ previous work, that made Gold such a hit.

Ryan Adams wears his influences on his sleeve here, none more so than the Rolling Stones, particularly on Tina’s Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues and The Rescue Blues, which both sound like they could have come at the end of Exile on Main Street.  Other clear parallels, as pointed out by Mark Deming in his All Music review, include Neil Young, Van Morrison and Elton John, but where Deming thinks that this confluence of tributes makes Gold emotionally hollow at its core, I think Adams’ inspiration rings true.  Nothing on this album sounds forced or out of place, and the overall effect is that of listening to a compilation of classic rock hits from the early seventies, which, if you really like that kind of music, is not a bad thing.

On a personal level (since that is what this site is supposed to be about after all), a couple of the minor songs on this album hold a lot of meaning for me.  I moved to Los Angeles at the end of August, 2001, traveling cross country with a friend on an “end of the college years” road trip, only to arrive in the city with no job, no place of my own to stay (thanks to some friends to whom I’ll always be indebted, I had an empty apartment in Hollywood to crash in) and no real desire to remain.  I lasted less than a month – I was sleeping on that Hollywood floor when I got the call about the towers being hit -before I packed up in the middle of the night and drove back to New Jersey.  On that drive home, I stopped in Vail for lunch one day and ended up getting hired as a lift operator for the winter, which meant that I was only actually in New Jersey for a little more than a month (long enough to see the still smoking ruins in lower Manhattan while driving my boss around town) before having to drive back west to Colorado on a new trip that would change my life forever.  During that month, I managed to pick up a copy of Gold and so I was accompanied on that solo drive back to Colorado by La Cienega Just Smiled and Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd.  I don’t think I have to get past the song titles for you to understand why those songs might have been important to me at that time.

So, listening to Gold now, I’m immediately taken back to that drive and those times, where nothing, personally or nationally, seemed certain and life was still a very open road.  I’m glad to have moved on from the fall of 2001 and I’m glad that I have Gold as a souvenir.