3 1/2 out of 5 stars
It’s switcheroo time as Ryan Adams handles the production chores for producer Ethan Johns, who has performed the same task for Adams, and many others, in the past. But, like Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash, there isn’t much for Adams to do except hit the record button and get out of the way. Johns’ mellifluous voice, finger picked guitar and basic live to tape approach doesn’t require any bells and whistles to connect on an emotional level.
This fictitious song cycle tells the tale of Thomas Younger who follows his older brother James west across America in the 1850s. That may sound like a big, somewhat pretentious concept, yet the stripped down organic recording—most of these performances were first considered demos—allows the drama to stay in the background with the focus on Johns’ vocal and songwriting talents. There are clear musical connections to Nick Drake, especially when Adams lays down sparse strings and adds very occasional keyboards from Heartbreaker Benmont Tench to flesh out some of the material.
This is very much in the troubadour tradition, focusing more on voice and emotion than musical hooks or catchy choruses. It’s haunting, generally reflective and completely non-commercial in its direct, unflinching bleakness. When electric guitar and crashing drums make surprising appearances on a few tracks about halfway into the program, the effect is startling and wonderfully powerful. That’s especially true on “Black Heart” as the instrumentation mirrors the gripping, shocking and violent lyrics. On “Talking Talking Blues,” Adams even adds guitar feedback to enhance the already ominous mood.
Johns found a sympathetic partner in Adams, one who understands when not to mess with a good thing just to justify the producer credit. He allows Johns’ emotionally driven music to simply and effectively do its job, capturing a two day moment in time that will continue to resonate for years.