I hate Ryan Adams. There. I said it and I'm not sorry. I realize that this is no longer such a controversial statement given the critical drubbing his last couple of records have taken, but I feel it needed to be said. I wanted to like him. I liked Whiskeytown a lot. But when you're as prolific as that guy is, one of two things is bound to happen:
- You will run out of ideas sooner rather than later or
- You will ignore your self-editor entirely too often, resulting in a steady flow of total crap.
It's even easier to dislike him (or least ignore him completely) when there are so many things right with alt-country (and similarly themed) music these days. There's such a broad spectrum of high quality tuneage available, everything from the more populist (Tift Merritt) to the often overlooked (Handsome Family, Lambchop), to the fringes of the genre (Calexico), even stretching to Adams inspired/abetted maturing rockers (Jesse Malin — far more intriguing and enjoyable than his cohort/producer Adams). Add to this list of things-to-love-in-alternative-country Seattle's own Memphis Radio Kings.
I almost hate to include them in a "Who's Who" of alt-country, because I'd hate to pigeonhole a band with a sound so diverse in as many ways as theirs. On this release the Kings seem to be spreading their wings quite a bit. Their last album No Band in the Happy Place was pretty much a straight up Jayhawks/Wilco/Replacements styled country-rock album, very consistent stylistically, and pretty damned good (lead track "Waiting on a Train" being a particular standout).
The overall feel of this, their third album, has a big ol' foot in traditional American music while also prominently moving into other areas (e.g. straight rock, pop, and early 20th century jazz). Think more of the Replacements in attitude than of Hank Williams, although even Hank Sr. would feel plenty at home here. A few spins on this one, and you will, too.
Lead track "25 Will Get You 10" kicks things off with a dirty harmonica and a Bo Diddley bounce (which, for my money, will never get old — George Thorogood be damned for trying to run it into the ground). They move swiftly into rollicking country rock territory, a la the Old 97's, with "God As My Waitress" (the title alone showing them to be as clever with words as they are with nimble guitar licks — which are in abundance on this cut). "Shackle and Chain's" first half organ riff bears a passing resemblance to the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields," but by the end of the song has faded into the background while the song itself has morphed into what feels like a Southern Baptist rival tent celebration. "Venture to Guess" pounds a beat like classic mid-period Replacements before hitting it's "Peggy Sue" inspired chorus and subsequent twangy solo.
Processed drums lead the proceedings in a completely new direction to start off the second half (side two, if you will) with "Dixieland" which feels a bit like a more acoustic Rolling Stones. "ATF" references doo-wop in feel while "celebrating" country staples alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. "Hittin' on the Queen" starts by bemoaning the current state of music in a lighthearted homage to 1920's era jazz and ends up featuring a kazoo (!) solo. The record ends with the bluegrassy "Been Better Said," wherein our hero cheerfully acknowledges his pilfering from the many and varied predecessors who inform this collection ("so I spend my days/ stealing from the graves/ of the men who came so long before my time"); the final nod to the past coming in the form of an effect on the fadeout which mimics a scratchy old LP spinning across the airwaves from a radio station faraway in the past.
Surprisingly this album, which both overtly and subtly references forbearers en masse and across several genres, maintains a very consistent feel. The Memphis Radio Kings lean fairly heavily on their influences, but manage to inject enough personality to make The Devils' Dutchmen distinctly their own. The bottom line is this is a varied and engaging work, one that owes a debt to the past, but successfully moves them forward and finds its own place.