One of the most frequently heard criticisms during country-tinged troubadour Ryan Adams’ career has been that he is too prolific. Especially during the hyperactive year 2005, during which he released Cold Roses (a doublealbum!), Jacksonville City Nights, and 29, it has been remarked that his tendency to quickly churn out new releases has resulted in diminishing returns. However, if subsequent Adams releases turn out to be as focused and effective as his latest, the Glyn Jones-produced Ashes & Fire, the refrain most often heard may be that he is not recording enough.
Working from a minimalist template, this album showcases a refreshed-sounding Adams and song craft that finds several melodies taking up permanent residency in the mind of the listener. “Do I Wait” builds on a bassy acoustic and tastefully echoed vocals, leading up to a finale that soars on squiggly Hammond organ swirls, a subtly dramatic electric guitar coda, and a effectively layered vocal harmony, while the title track features twangy guitar, ragtime piano (provided by frequent partner-in-crime Norah Jones), and something that has long been an Adams staple: an epic chorus accompanied by country-fried electric.
“Come Home,” perhaps the quietest track on a quiet full-length, features stellar steel guitar, light cymbal brushing, and terrific backing vocals by Jones and Adams wife, Mandy Moore (that is right; I am officially registering my satisfaction with an album with a major contribution from Mandy Moore). Another highlight is “Invisible Riverside,” a deeper, funkier track laden with slightly distorted Hammond, acrobatic bass, and practically psychedelic guitar work. Also strong are “Kindness,” a piano-and-organ-driven, low-tempo number, and “Lucky Now,” a song that features some of Adams most nimble guitar work and ends early, leaving the listener
wanting a lot more.
In fact, if there were to be a criticism of the album, it might be that: some of the songs are a little bit underdeveloped, such as “Chains of Love,” a tune with a pulsing drum beat and some expertly arranged string sections. At barely 2:30 minutes, it signs off abruptly and leaves the listener feeling like it could have been further explored. There are also tracks, like “Rocks,” that seem a little too spare, as if they could use some additional punching up. Then again, even with slight drawbacks, songs like these, or the Neil Young-ish “Save Me,” or the shambling, bluesy “I Love You, But I Don’t Know What to Say,” are not exactly the type that make you want to skip to the next track.
All in all, Ashes & Fire is a low-key treasure, one that should make one want to stop kvetching about how many albums the guy puts out and simply enjoy the fact that such a gifted songsmith deems to grace the world with his musical output.