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Whiskeytown 

Pneumonia (Lost Highway)

The swan song of a group heralded as the paradigm of "no depression" folk rock is a pensive, checkered album highlighting the songs of Ryan Adams, a singer who has trouble staying on key, but who nevertheless seems destined for stardom. Last year, he released a highly acclaimed solo album on Bloodshot, one of the hippest, most idiosyncratic independent labels in the business. Originally intended as a double album recorded with Outpost label house producer Scott Litt, Pneumonia wound up a single 14-track CD, remixed by Adams and drummer/producer Ethan Johns. It's diverse and sounds good, but it could have been edited down even more. The first five tracks are spotty, and by "Don't Be Sad," you think you've wandered into a Pure Prairie League or America record. But things pick up after that, and the last two-thirds of the album are good: "Mirror, Mirror" is pretty cool pop, "What the Devil Wanted" is great in the Fleetwoods vein, and "Crazy for You" could be a smash hit.

Adams can be sweetly sentimental: "Ballad of Carol Lynn" is appealing and catchy, and "Jacksonville Skyline" has some deft imagery. But Adams can also be irresolute: "Sit & Listen to the Rain" is inappropriately mildewy, and "Don't Be Sad" is a downer, both lyrically and musically. Perhaps such tunes appeal to inside mopesters, but they don't carry an album. The best tune on the CD is "Paper Moon," which is also the least conventional. It sounds like an outtake from a Nilsson record, or maybe one by Van Dyke Parks. It's surreal, wistful, and beautifully arranged, with strings and flutes swooning behind Adams's most cynical and flexible vocal. With guests such as ex-Replacements/current Guns N' Roses bassist Tommy Stinson and Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, Whiskeytown has made some beautiful music here. Too bad it didn't make a more cohesive album.

More by Carlo Wolff

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