No Surf Music


The No Surf Review


The Lowdown:

Ryan Adams

Based In:
Los Angeles, CA



Ashes & Fire

Release Date:
October 11, 2011

PAX-AM/Capitol Records

Previous Releases:
Heartbreaker (2000), Gold (2001), Demolition (2002), Rock N Roll (2003), Love Is Hell (2004), Cold Roses (2005, w/ The Cardinals), Jacksonville City Nights (2005, w/ The Cardinals), 29 (2005), Easy Tiger (2007, w/ The Cardinals), Cardinology (2008, w/ The Cardinals), Orion (2010), III/IV (2010, w/ The Cardinals)

Americana,, self-indulgent crap

Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire album cover

Rating: 3 out of 10



December 27, 2011


Ryan Adams: Ashes & Fire

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Ryan Adams is one of the few performers who has had crossover appeal in the pop world, possibly due to looks like this, which seem to fill women with an inexorable compulsion to remove their panties. Photo by David Black.

Ashes & Fire is the first album from the usually prolific Ryan Adams following the breakup of his backing band the Cardinals in 2009 and his professed retirement due to complications from Ménière's disease (and also, incidentally, the first since his marriage to singer/actress Mandy Moore). It was, therefore, highly anticipated among many in the community.

Although obviously something that ought to be written about, this is a review that has been simmering silently on the back burner but has never made it to the front of the line. I kept thinking I had to hear the album again, because there must be something I was missing. It is topping the Americana charts and seems to be gaining quite a bit of acclaim from my fellow travelers in the land of music reviewers, but the question is: Why? Having steeled myself to listen to it several times through I can now unequivocally say Ashes & Fire sucks.

For the most part, Ryan Adams is a decent songwriter. Ok, he’s inconsistent on his best days and his albums are usually filled with two or three tremendous songs and a bunch of lackluster filler, but those few gems are so powerful that they more than make up for his fluctuating standards of quality. This album presents nothing of the caliber of “New York, New York” or “My Winding Wheel,” or even “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High).” Ryan Adams is a damn fine songwriter when he wants to be, but it’s obvious that on this album he just wasn’t trying. And if he was trying, then he failed miserably. In fact, many of the better songs on Ashes & Fire don’t even meet the quality of the forgettable cuts on some of his earlier works.

This I feel is due to an incredibly unfortunate trend in music today: all of a sudden, everybody wants to be Justin Vernon. And Justin Vernon is a pretentious, talentless douche bag who wouldn’t know a decent piece of music if it crawled up his ass and bit him in the voice box, forcing him to sing like a bona fide adult male instead of the adolescent gelding he seeks to imitate. Many of Adams’ vocals on Ashes & Fire seek (incredibly inappropriately) to mimic this unintelligible falsetto style, while much of the music takes after Vernon’s “just play everything at once and who cares if there’s a melody” mantra. It’s less like music than the gutter-bound residue of a night spent drinking two-dozen Jägermeisters.

The album’s first single, “Lucky Now,” is the only track that actually sounds like a Ryan Adams song—that is it is guitar-based with piano accents and sung in a simple, unpretentious manner in a reasonable register. It is also the only track on the album worth noting in a positive manner. The lyrics, which focus on the soul-deadening complexities of growing older, also come reasonably close to meeting the higher end of his standards. They are simple but well painted, as opposed to the meaningless jumble that fills the bulk of this album:

This photo is emblematic of the gritty starkness that often makes Adams' compositions strong. Unfortunately, that quality is missing from virtually every track on this album. Photo by David Black.

Waiting outside while you find your keys,
Like bags of trash in the blackening snow.
City of neon and toes that freeze,
We’ve got nothing and nowhere to go.
We’ve got nothing and nowhere…

And the lights will draw you in,
And the dark will take you down,
And the night will break your heart,
But only if you’re lucky now.

And if the lights draw you in,
And the dark can take you down,
And love can mend your heart,
But only if you’re lucky now.

“Chains of Love” might actually be a decent song if it weren’t fatally overproduced, like virtually every other track on the album. Instead of just going with a guitar and a few accents for effect, the song fills up every spare bit of space with piano chords and strings that have absolutely no business being there. Adams is best when he lets the music speak for itself, but the heart of this song is buried so deep it never has a chance to reach the surface. His voice, too, flutters around in an attempt to be way too pretty, and thus fails completely.

“Save Me” isn’t horrible. Ok, the lyrics aren’t particularly ingenious, nor is the music exceptionally interesting, but at least Adams’ voice is used appropriately and the sound is full without being overly busy. Still, at best this is the quality of a forgotten-about album cut, not one of the premier songs on the album.

The leadoff track, “Dirty Rain” is a slow, bluesy number dominated by a haunting organ part. The problem is that the style just doesn’t work with Adams’ voice. You expect something like the gruffness of a Tom Waits, but what you get is the clean tones emblematic of Adams. He should consider smoking three packs of cigarettes every day for forty years and then re-recording this one. At least the lyrics are decent, which on this album sets it apart:

Last time I was here you were waiting.
You're not waiting anymore.
The windows broke and the smoke's escaping,
All the books scattered ‘cross the floor,
And the church bells were ringing through the sirens,
And your coat was full of bullet holes.
Last time I was here you were waiting.
You ain't waiting anymore.

The title track, “Ashes & Fire” is an up-tempo tune dominated by ringing piano chords, but the music is too full for its own good and Adams stretches too far trying to come up with extra-witty lyrics:

Her eyes were indigo and the cats were all calico and the sailboats they all sailed by
And a river she cried. 

If you ever meet a girl with indigo eyes, please introduce me to her, because that’s someone I’d like to meet. And the mere fact that “calico” is of similar sonance doesn’t make it acceptable to insert it into the song when it doesn’t seem to have any particular meaning in context. It’s just lazy writing.

Most of the rest of the songs on the album are innocuous at best… not unlistenable but not at all interesting. There are several that are just horrible, however.

“Come Home” is slow, boring and sappy. Although it features a decent slide guitar part, I couldn’t make it through the whole track despite repeated attempts. It’s just awful.

“Do I Wait” is… aw, hell, where to start... It’s just bad. The vocals are buried in so much reverb that they continue ringing well into the next track. There’s no real melody, just a fluctuating organ that gives the listener a throbbing headache. And then it gets worse. Why the hell does everyone want to be Bon Iver? The song builds into a loud, directionless climax with Adams repeating, “Do I wait?” over and over again in a high-pitched wail that can only be described as complete crap.

The album’s closer, “I Love You But I Don't Know What To Say,” is likewise unlistenable. Adams tries to make his voice sound extra sweet, but only shows its flaws as it crackles under the weight of the attempt at augmented soulfulness. The music, too, is far too precious, with the piano part sounding like a demonstration of just how lightly one can touch the keys and still produce an audible tone. Oh, and the lyrics suck. You know what this world needs? One more generic, sappy, platitudinous love song:

There's a metaphor here… on this album, Adams demonstrates that he is completely in love with himself and feels that he can do no wrong. That's the only real explanation for how someone could release something so self-indulgent without feeling completely embarrassed. Photo by David Black.

Hear me say,
Say this to you:
I'll stand by your side;
See you through.
I promise you that I will keep you safe from harm,
And love you the rest of my days.
When the night is silent and we seem so far away,
Oh I love you 
And I don’t know what to say. 

Ashes & Fire is a major disappointment. Many reviewers have claimed that it is Adam’s most consistent work to date and they’re right: it is consistently awful. The one bright spot is “Lucky Now,” and it doesn’t come anywhere near to making up for the failure of every other track. Ryan Adams and the multitudinous choir of Bon Iver-entranced copycats deserve serious reprobation for failing to remember who they are and instead succumbing to the lure of trying to make their music conform to whatever is (inexplicably) popular at the moment. Adams is a good songwriter and I expect that he will produce decent recordings in the future, but when he looks back, I hope he’s sorry for the crime of producing this soulless pile of tripe. But not as sorry as you will be if you actually pay good money for it. Hell, this one ain’t even worth stealing.


Ashes and Fire is awful. For compelling music by somebody named Ryan, buy Bingham's Junky Star on Amazon!
mp3 cd vinyl


No Pop. No Crap. No Surf.