To know who Bob Lefsetz is is to have a strong opinion about him and his well-known newsletter. Personally, I find him to be a cantankerous old sonofabitch with an axe to grind and an overwrought writing style. One thing I will give him, though, is that he is always thoughtful, he’s clearly passionate about the right things, and he seems to genuinely care about music and the important role it plays in our lives. For that, I suppose it’s fair to say I respect the guy, as much a pain in the ass he may be. I do enjoy reading his newsletter when it is forwarded on to me, as it often is by my coworker, Franklin (who is a subscriber– I am not).
Franklin has a musical taste and opinions about the industry that are much more in line with Lefsetz’s than my own, so we sometimes have different takes on his pieces. He forwarded me a Lefsetz piece on Whiskeytown, because he knows I’m a Ryan Adams fan. I thought I’d share the Adams-related exchange we had after he forwarded me the article:
From: Franklin, Sent: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 10:09 AM
As someone who has heard/tried to listen to EVERY single Prince record at least once, there is DEFINITELY a syndrome of being too prolific. Sorry Prince, I love you, but MOST of your music is annoying.
I don’t know Ryan Adams’ collection well enough to say if this was the case with him. I feel so at home with his style and sound that even lame songs usually sound pretty good to me.
Adams probably didn’t benefit from his embarrassing interviews. Too many wasted chats in front of an open mic. He just sounds stupid. But with that said, when I read his interviews in print I always love him. I have a similar reaction to Madonna. As soon as she opens her mouth I want to gag. But I usually like her music (or at least I like it after it has been beaten into my head 10,000 times).
Wasted Keith Richards always had a very well spoken Mick Jagger to handle the press. If the Stones had had to rely on his incoherent babble, they would have ended up collapsing.
It reminds me of the bit about Jerry Wexler talking about ‘tracks.’ “Yep, it sounds good, but there are no tracks on the record.” I love his enthusiasm for the song writing. Plus he calls them tracks which is cool in a Jewish Brooklyn kind of way.
I’m listening to a song on Demolition right now called “Desire”. It sounds good, but at the end of the day, it’s just kind of lame. It just doesn’t seem like a ‘track’. Hmmm, “Cry on Demand” is starting to make me feel kind of weird too. Is this a bad record?? I need a ranker on the records.
From: Me, Sent: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 10:50 AM
You know how to goad me into writing an email, I’ll give you that.
My Ryan Adams Album Rankings:
1) Gold – For purely sentimental reasons. This was the first album of his I got, and I was hooked. “Answering Bell” sung by anyone else would be terrible, but his countrified warble makes it heartbreaking and oddly moving. And it’s a pop song. Could be an Elton John tune, in which case I’d HATE it.
2) Love Is Hell - People slammed it. The label sent him back to the drawing board saying “You can do better.” WHAT?? Are these people nuts? “Please Do Not Let Me Go” is one of the saddest, most moving songs I’ve ever heard. This album only spoke to a few people, but the people to whom it did speak treasure it (stole that line from David Dye. When he said that in an interview, Adams said something to the effect of “Yeah. Thanks for saying that.”) I’m one of those people.
3) Jacksonville City Nights – This really should be my #1. A lapsteel slap in the face to Nashville and folks who said he was a 100% pop artist. Reminds me of Fall in Vermont for some reason. “Hard Way to Fall” and the Norah Jones duet “Dear John” are both great but, really, I love the whole damn thing to pieces.
4) Cold Roses – I buy the quantity over quality argument here. No need for this to be a double-disc effort. But the first two tracks are among his best ever.
5) Heartbreaker – Too weepy and self-romanticizing for me to go back to over and over again. I love it, don’t get me wrong. “My Winding Wheel” is an amazing driving song. During its guitar intro, I always visualize a tire spinning down a highway.
6) Easy Tiger - This is what came out when someone tried to sit him down and say “Dude, not all 37 of these songs can make it to the album, and you’re going to have to include certain ones to make this have mass commercial appeal.” Hence “Two” and “Everybody Knows”, which are both very “adult contemporary” sounding but you know what? You guessed it, I love ‘em both. Something about the timbre of this guy’s voice, I guess…
7) 29 - Certainly its own album. Sprawling, folksy tales. This album actually grows on you after time if you give it a chance, but I certainly don’t begrudge anyone not liking it. “Carolina Rain” is my favorite, and “Strawberry Wine” is really cool (I dig the occasional song that has no chorus).
8) Demolition – The name comes from the fact that these are mostly cutting room floor demos and B-sides that hadn’t been put out there before (get it? “demo”lition?), and yes, the result is many misses (”Starting to Hurt”, “Gimme a Sign”, “Jesus Don’t Touch My Baby” in particular are all stinkers). But “Dear Chicago”, “Chin Up, Cheer Up” and “Tomorrow” are all lovely, and I like the others as well, if not insanely.
9) Rock N Roll - Including this in the ranks is kind of silly, because it’s its own beast. Fun, catchy rock. This album got slammed by a lot of people, but all I can think of when I hear it is “I MUST get an electric guitar and a twelve pack IMMEDIATELY, and attack both voraciously” because the music is so carefree and stupid and fun. And I love that it’s literally the product of a week locked in a basement with friends and copius amounts of hard drugs, just cranking up the distortion and banging out tune after tune as a DIRECT result of being told that Love Is Hell wasn’t good enough/wasn’t what his label wanted out of him. “Oh yeah? Well take THIS.”
And I guess my point in defending the quantity of his output was driven by two key differences in my thinking from yours/Lefsetz’s.
1) I’m not arguing that a stronger focus on quality over quantity would not have benefited his career. I agree that Ryan Adams is a musical Thomas Wolfe without a Max Perkins: his career could have benefited from a stronger guiding hand in terms of his output. But as a FAN? I could care less about how popular he is, which leads to key difference #2:
2) I love his music, and I want to hear it all, hits and misses. I want to see the evolution, and hear him explore. I’m that into it. Your point about John Prine is well taken, but I think if you gave Prine the choice between exploring music as much as possible and sharing as much as possible with his fans all the while being as successful as he is and sharing a little LESS just in order to be thought of as a bit “tighter” a songwriter and hence gain some invisible points in the rankings of music critics, he’d choose the former in a heartbeat. When you’re an artist, producing art is what you’re supposed to do, not hold stuff back because it may strategically benefit your career in some abstract way.
From: Franklin, Sent: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 10:55 AM
I LOVE THIS EMAIL.
I need more time to read it full. I can’t wait to cue up the records with your notes. Thanks.
To be clear/fair, I don’t care about anyone’s music career. But I do like quality. I think Lefsetz is saying that quality equals a career. Most of the GREAT records ultimately make it. Sometimes the obscure lame records are obscure and lame for a reason.
But scrap John Prine. I was referring to PRINCE. As in ‘the artist formally known as.’
Oops. So there you have it. I can’t read. A song for your trouble: