LET IT RIDE
LET IT RIDE
RYAN ADAMS’ LONG, PROLIFIC ROAD TO COLD ROSES
BY NICK TAVARES
LET IT RIDE
ecords are moments in time. The best ones live on and trudge through the years, surviving moves and format changes and deaths and births and the general chaos of life; but still, at their core, they remain a picture of a band at a specific time in their creative development. The artists convene, record songs they’ve been working on for a finite period of time, deem them ready to release and unleash them on the world. Now we have the songs; the band can play them live, or not, but the fact that the songs are out there gives the artist license to move on and restart the process. Ryan Adams, in a career that began in the mid-1990s with Whiskeytown and escalated on the release of his first solo album in 2000, has turned this practice into a sprint rather than the casual three-year cycle that so many of his peers apply to the process. To be sure, he records songs for an album, said album is released and he tours. Sometimes he brings a band, sometimes he doesn’t. But where Adams differs from his colleagues is that, in between those steps, he doesn’t stop writing and recording. He has destroyed the previous notion of what it means to be a prolific artist; he immediately began overwhelming his record label with the amount of material he was submitting for release, a cache of songs that, more often than not, contained amazing bits of insight and poetry, set to melodies that burrowed deep into that inner psyche like the greatest of earworms but without the frustration that usually comes with it (I’m thinking now of all those disposable pop hits that blare out of shopping malls specifically to be remembered and forgotten two months, like some science experiment geared to annoy a populace into buying a song until that particular singer is thrown onto the “used” pile). Instead, Adams’ brain keeps cranking out gems, beautiful little nuggets of rock and roll vision that show both an appreciation for the glut of influences that came before and enough original thought to deserve placement in their own right. But he hasn’t always been able to release his music the way his muse demands. There are competing factors and schedules to follow that the creative mind has little use for. Some of his best songs — and albums, to be honest — have never seen the light of day in an official capacity. The fact that so much of it is out there anyway is evidence enough of how much this music has meant.
But sometimes, everything goes smoothly and the muse and the machine are able to coexist happily. Sometimes, all those songs that are pulled from the ether at the same time are able to step out into the world together, forming the full picture of the artist’s brain. Sometimes, the record label lets Ryan Adams do what he wants, and what he wanted in 2005 was to release three full-length albums, and for that first album to be a twodisc conquest that melded all of his previous work while taking bold steps forward with a new sound and a new band. Sometimes, everything pulls together just right, and the world gets to hear Ryan Adams and the Cardinals jam on Cold Roses. And so we have it: a full, crystalized moment in time, a collection of songs that burn so brightly alone and yet still sound so much better when supported by the others. It’s a record that was the product of a frustrated artist who was allowed to break free and steer his own course. 2
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Shortly after class started, a friend and soon-to-be bandmate turned me onto a CD he’d just picked up, and I still can’t figure out how he’d heard about it so quickly. Gold, Ryan Adams’ second album, had that same spirit as the older music I’d adopted, but carried a different sense of urgency. Rather than just hearing these as songs I could usurp into my inner soundtrack, these were songs that immediately called out to the ages. This guy I’d never heard of (Whiskeytown hadn’t made my radar in their day) was taking styles and tossing them in and out, playing whatever fit the songs rather than trying to make consciously stylistic decisions. “New York, New York” was a peppy pop song even I could like. “SYLVIA PLATH” was a plaintive song with a selfish yearning for a love that could never exist. “Nobody Girl” was simply an epic that I could only compare to an early, 10-minute stomp by Neil Young & Crazy Horse. This guy was casually invoking Young and the Stones and Dylan and Willie with all the cool of Springsteen.
he summer of 2001, before the start of my sophomore year at college, was likely the last I fully dedicated to the glory of classic rock. It was my second summer going to concerts, and catching the likes of the Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton (on his “last” tour) was another avenue in my search for the great music that came before my time. I spent a considerable amount of time, effort and money earned at the grocery store on remastered CDs and amphitheater concert tickets in an attempt to relive what it must’ve been like as a teenager in 1972. Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the rest of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame roster packed up their gear and played every hockey arena in North America for parking lots stuffed with stoned high schoolers looking to take it all in, before Ticketmaster and scanned barcodes and service charges and guys patting down kids at the gates for weapons, drugs and god knows what else. By then, I was 19 years old, and living in the past to brazenly escape the present was getting tiresome. One outlet that summer had been the Black Crowes, who conveniently bore all the traits of the ’70s bands I loved while still being young and making music that I held as vital. Their sixth album, Lions, came out that summer, lived in my car and came blaring out at me at two shows that year, the most positive experience with music I’d had yet. This was new music that I could claim as my own, that I could wrap with my own memories rather than augmenting my feelings with what I’d read in books and magazines. I needed more music like that.
All that, and there was an edge to his music that was difficult to describe (and likely still is). Though the artwork was chosen beforehand, the image of Adams in a football t-shirt with his tossed bedhead in front of an upside down American Flag was an incredibly daring statement in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks that year. When Jimmy Eat World had to rename their Bleed American record and songs were being pulled from radio playlists left and right (“Imagine,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” etc.), here was Adams, brazenly being himself. Not disrespectful, per se, but certainly not intentionally genial. It all had me hooked — the presentation, the styles, the sounds and, most importantly, the music. We searched
RYAN ADAMS & THE CARDINALS Cold Roses Lost Highway 2005 Producer: Tom Schick Side one: 1. Magnolia Mountain 2. Sweet Illusions 3. Meadowlake Street 4. When Will You Come Back Home Side two: 1. Beautiful Sorta 2. Now That You’re Gone 3. Cherry Lane
4. Mockingbird 5. How Do You Keep Love Alive Side three: 1. Easy Plateau 2. Let it Ride 3. Rosebud 4. Cold Roses 5. If I Am a Stranger Side four: 1. Dance All Night 2. Blossom 3. Life Is Beautiful 4. Friends 5. Tonight
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and dug around for live recordings and were sucked in by his slapdash style, cracking jokes and making up songs about Batman in one moment, burning through “Nobody Girl” and “Enemy Fire” the next. He was a rebel, he wrote like a genius and he sang at once like an angel and with toughness. And he was ours.
“I don’t much care for this record,” he said of Demolition. “The rock songs are plodding and the quiet songs belonged to better records that would have been much for [sic] an effective whole. I often wonder how nice it might have been to have actually been allowed to make Suicide Handbook instead of Gold. I like Gold, sure, but Gold had all the same songs Suicide Handbook has on them but no one ever heard them. They will be out sometime.
It was stunning to realize later that Gold came about as the result of compromise. His solo debut, Heartbreaker, had been released on Bloodshot Records the year before, but Gold would be his first album for Lost Highway, and it was a conscious attempt to make an accessible, rounded album that the A&R folks could peddle to radio and TV. Doing that wouldn’t be hard, necessarily; Adams is as prolific an artist as we’ve had in the rock realm this century, and it wasn’t difficult to pull together a diverse set of songs that told a story and maintained a mood.
“Still, to make Gold as a compromise, then to have to watch those records get broken up for Demolition was heartbreaking. Thank God I was able to make Love is Hell uninterrupted (sort of) – ugh – I mean, thank goodness it came out.” Love Is Hell was a much more focused record than either Gold or Demolition, a stack of songs that lacked the polished gleam of Gold but turned all of the fire and heartbreak up by degrees. Here, Adams was searching the space of the studio as a new vehicle for his words, using atmospheric tension to push songs like “Please Do Not Let Me Go” and “Hotel Chelsea Nights” to new realms of pain. Adams occasionally gets pegged as insincere by those who, I imagine, simply don’t believe him and can’t empathize. But to those who were in on the message, these songs packed a punch unlike anything else out there in 2003.
But the last five songs were carelessly lopped off, relegated to a bonus disc labelled “Side Four” on early pressings of the CD. And when the time came for his next record, Demolition, his label demanded that he break up the string of albums he’d quickly written and recorded since Gold to be released as a single LP. Most of the material on the unreleased albums Suicide Handbook and 48 Hours and Pinkhearts Demos, among others, were quickly leaked online and in trading circles. But in a series of forum posts in 2009, Adams himself lamented the butchering of his music.
Of course, Love Is Hell turned into another fight with Lost Highway. Simply, Lost Highway didn’t see the
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marketability of a set of downer songs, and insisted that Adams record an album of upbeat rockers instead. "It was, 'This isn't the record that Ryan should make', but I think I should have the license to express myself however I want to,” he told The Guardian in 2004. “And if you have enough faith and trust in an artist to sign them to your fucking label and you're an 'artists' label', then I think it has to be a consensual relationship. "But Love Is Hell is anything but a shit record,” he continued. “It's a lot like Heartbreaker, but better and more severe. It's complex and it's damaged, a genuine, freakedout, psychedelic wall of soundscape, and I think for subject matter it can't be beat.” Lost Highway didn’t see it that way, but another compromise was reached; Adams wound up knocking out a new album, Rock N Roll, in two weeks with songs that leaned heavily on the Replacements and Big Star and U2. That record was released on Nov. 4, 2003, along with the the first half of Love Is Hell as an EP; Love Is Hell, Pt. 2 followed it into stores a month later. The results were varied; Rock N Roll got a little radio time on the back of “So Alive,” but reviews were mixed. Meanwhile, the Love Is Hell EPs were much better received (in an unscientific example, All Music Guide gave it four stars compared to Rock N Roll’s three) and eventually, they were recombined into one record and rereleased the next year. With fans clamoring for all the unreleased, 48 Hours-era material and now responding better commercially to Adams’ original idea, Lost Highway seemed to finally relent. The battles for artistic control would, for a moment, be won by Adams, who would have full control of how his music would be released, how much would see the light of day and when it would all come out.
t the dawn of 2009, Adams was on the heels of Cardinology, his fourth album released with the help of the Cardinals and at least the sixth or seventh actually recorded with them. Their shows were the stuff of legend for the band’s fans, and recordings were passed about freely and quickly online. The kismet on display every night on those bootlegs was incredible; old songs were given new textures and meanings, newer songs grew and expanded as shows went on, setlists varied, the unexpected was expected. The thrill of following that band along, in person and from a distance, was one of those few joys where it’s immediately clear that everyone in attendance is in on something special. That obvious kinship the musicians shared made Adams’ announcement that he was breaking up the band and temporarily stepping away from music all the more shocking. "Know that I am not abandoning anyone, not the Cardinals and not the fans," Adams wrote on his blog in Jan. 2009. "This is just something I need to do now, and that I loved playing music in the Cardinals. And hell, even before I was in a place to try and learn to be well, music was my life source, and Cardinals was such a heavy crush and a real dream. I honor it too much to have any regrets right now. I am just proud." In five short years, Adams and the Cardinals had become synonymous. The thought of one without the other seemed heartbreaking, if not impossible. There’s a mythical quality to the backing band that best supports the prolific singer-songwriter that can help make that artist’s records feel more like a celebration rather than a piece of workmanship — those cold, cut-toorder songs spit out by the top studio hands of the time. It’s not hard to run down the list and tick off the group that best heralded the singer’s voice. Bob Dylan had the Band before they were the Band. Bruce Springsteen has the E Street Band. Tom Petty has the Heartbreakers. Neil Young has Crazy Horse. They were all instrumental in helping those artists record their best work, and just as importantly, they forged identities on stage that helped make some of the pairings inseparable. Dylan’s shows with the Band in 1966 and 1974 are legendary. Bruce Springsteen only rarely treks out without
Given the keys to his destiny for the first time since signing with the label, he mapped out an epic 2005 that would see him unveil his greatest collaborators and release 10 sides of vinyl full of new songs written with all the spirit of those ghosts of the 1960s and ’70s that had drawn me in, but now with the edge and expertise of an artist who had been put through the ringer too many times, always to come out the other side worn and weary but victorious. He had won. And his next record would be his masterpiece. www.staticandfeedback.com
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his Jersey-bred band behind him. Young’s most viscious shows have been with Crazy Horse, from 1970 right up through this year. Petty has never toured without his Heartbreakers.
extension of the man himself, playing with subtlety and grace, letting the natural ebb and flow of the songs shine while realizing when and where to step on the gas. For example, the band realized Adams’ Grateful Dead leanings quickly, covering that band’s epic “Wharf Rat” night after night, mastering the subtle guitar interplay that floats between the verses of love and confusion that made that era of the Dead so powerful. That aspect of his music, the near-telepathic conversation among musicians, had been missing on all his prior work. Before, he was merely a brilliant musician writing and playing his songs. Now, he had a band who could interpret those songs and bring even more life out of them.
From their inception to their breakup, and with some lineup changes within, the Cardinals helped bring a sense of stability to Adams’ career, in the studio and on stage, that had been missing up to that point. Each record, it seemed, had either been a genre exercise or a compromise in an attempt to merge all the different styles and sounds in a way that could be as palatable as possible to the folks who signed checks and pressed CDs. In the midst of all this, the Cardinals gave Adams a fixed home. They were friends, collaborators and sympathizers. They were only there for the music, and they were there to make the music better.
“The first couple of times that we went out, we were sort of reinterpreting the mess of my back catalog,” Adams told NPR on the eve of Cold Roses’ release in 2005. “There were a couple of songs that were good, like 10 or 15 that we did better than any other versions. And I think part of that was maybe I was more applied to play; I was really trying to dig into the songs, try to actually interpret it to whatever umpth degree it was. “So, we pretty much can play anything. I mean, all the stuff that doesn’t completely blow, we play.”
But at the onset, the Cardinals felt in name like the latest in a string of bands that backed Adams following his departure from Whiskeytown, for those shows where he’d do more than just accompany himself on guitar and piano. The Pinkhearts recorded two albums worth of unreleased songs with Adams and backed him at SXSW in 2001, and on the Rock N Roll tour, while the Sweetheart Revolution were tabbed with supporting him on the 2002 spring and summer shows that followed Gold. The Cardinals had a bit of a windier path to becoming a band than merely being the guys he happened to play with at the time, in the right place to be knighted with a fancy name. J.P. Bowersock, the “guru” made famous in the credits of the Strokes’ Is This It, had been playing and recording with Adams in 2004 when the idea of forming a band began to take shape. Before long, Catherine Popper would be recruited on bass and Cindy Cashdollar took the pedal steel guitar; by the time calendar flipped, Jon Graboff would be installed in that position. Brad Pemberton, a veteran of both the Pinkhearts and the Sweetheart Revolution, stuck around on drums. They cut their teeth with Adams on a 2004 tour that saw him playing a mix of material that excluded Rock N Roll, while working in early 2005 on their new album.
hrough 2004 and into 2005, Adams had been recording at a pace that would have left Neil Young shaking in the knees. He would routinely walk into a studio and walk out with another 12 or 15 songs, complete thoughts polished and ready to release. And after another week of writing new tunes on his acoustic guitar, he’d be back in the studio committing more songs to tape. Or he’d write them in the studio. Either way, he was walking out with master reels full of gems, perhaps 20 percent of which would find a home on a record some day. The idea of releasing some of these unreleased records as one giant box set fell on deaf ears in the label offices, and even getting the songs out in a cohesive manner proved to be trouble. But the double album that eventually housed Cold Roses made everyone happy. Adams got a batch of songs out the way he envisioned,
Listening to even those early recordings, it was apparent that this band picked up on everything Adams was laying down. Rather than playing with slick professionalism or helping him relive his garage band glory, the Cardinals felt like a multi-instrumental www.staticandfeedback.com
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and Lost Highway was ready to appease their frustrated artist in a way that didn’t rock the boat much. There’s majesty in the sprawling double album that doesn’t quite exist elsewhere in rock and roll. When done correctly, it’s an artistic organic statement, an extended burst of creativity and brilliance that can’t be contained by the 45-minute constraints of a standard LP. It takes almost no time to look through some of the better double records in the rock era — The White Album, Exile on Main St., Quadrophenia, Physical Graffiti, London Calling, Daydream Nation, The Fragile, Embryonic, etc. — and find that those albums wind up near or at the top of those respective artists’ catalogs. And yet, a common motif within rock reviews of these and other two-disc sets calls for the editing of these expansive programs into the prefab mold. Just a cursory glance through the original reviews of Cold Roses reveals as much. Uncut Magazine wrote, buried down in their review, that “it arguably would have made a better single album, but the second disc is packed with a set of similarly paced tunes.” NME wrote that, “the production is too breezy in places and at 19 songs, it is at least half a dozen too long.” Rolling Stone’s Joe Levy took it a step further, asking, “is it too much to hope that he'll do with [future albums] what anyone with an iPod can do with Cold Roses: edit out the sleepy stuff for a truly killer playlist?” Well, as Levy said, if anyone really wants to cut out the bits they don’t like for a personal playlist, that’s an option. But it’s only an option because the music is there to begin with, and the call for everything to be cut down www.staticandfeedback.com
speaks to the impatience of many reviewers in the first place. Deadlines are an issue, of course, and there’s a lot of music to get through, but records like this, as with all the acknowledged greats, don’t exist to be listened to once and be immediately discarded. They’re here because there was a lot for the artist to process, and a lot of music and emotions and ideas are left for listeners as a result. Again, skipping back through the archives, it’s not difficult to find the same initial criticisms of double records — they’re too long, they should have been edited down, there’s no focus — that were later accepted as classics. “I did Cold Roses, and people said it was too long, and that it should’ve been condensed into one CD,” Adams told the AV Club in 2011. “But several people said it, and then each person’s idea of what songs should be taken off of it were on the other person’s CD. [Laughs.] And then that record ‘sucked,’ and then I made more records, and they were like, ‘It’s not as good as Cold Roses.’ It’s always something. It’s a negative trend.” Know that, from here on out, the very format of Cold Roses will be celebrated as an exquisite execution of the form. Sincerely, a thousand apologies to reviewers if these sets take more than 20 minutes to jump through. And to be sure, the layout and placement of the 18 songs (19 on the vinyl edition) on Cold Roses was nearly as brilliant as the songs themselves. If there are songs that don’t cut it for individual listeners, that’s what playlists are for. These songs all deserved a place at the table. They’re all a different shade of a blue-period tour de force. An attempt to buck that negative trend that colors so much music criticism will be made. 7
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not giving the album a chance, no listener is going to buy into the concept without some kind of rally cry to kickstart the journey. Not only does Adams lure in the listener with an incredible track, he does so in a way that was unique to that point in his career. This isn’t just a new record with a new band; this is a new side to an already prolific artist. He maintains this new template and style, and like a good mix tape, he steps on the gas a bit for “Sweet Illusions,” cranking up the emotion of the music without necessarily turning the volume knob.
t starts with the descending twitch of an acoustic guitar, an obviously familiar instrument cast in a different light than had been previously seen on a Ryan Adams record. It’s a microscopic overture, and it gives way to the full weight of the Cardinals, who immediately have greater presence than any previous set of musicians had on his solo work, released or otherwise. “Magnolia Mountain,” besides having a dreamlike lyric of bringing his beloved to some fertile paradise, ushers in a dynamic range that Adams hinted at in Love Is Hell but had never executed to quite this degree. The voices of Popper, Cashdollar and Pemberton ring in harmony with and behind him, as he calls for his subject to “lie to me/sing me a song,” keeping the illusion he’s created alive for just a little while longer.
“Sweet Illusions” is a tale of heartbreak, and that’s a descriptor that could have easily included the word “another” somewhere in it given this particular artist’s predilection with the subject. Here, he’s just about to pull into the fourth stage of the Kübler-Ross scale, but before darkness completely cloaks the scenario, he’s hanging on to the faint, distant belief that all is not lost. This doesn’t have to be over, but there’s nothing left to give — “And I ain’t got nothing but love for you now,” he pleads, a desperate attempt to show that he’s given everything he has and that his love is all that’s left. The scenes he paints here are fascinating. Beyond the dreamy utopia of “Magnolia Mountain,” Adams pulls together abstract scenes that convey how it felt when everything went right, and where he’s forced to take himself in his mind now that he’s alone, which, as everyone who’s been through something like this knows, is as dangerous an exercise as any. He’s alone, and all that’s left are memories: “It’s turning morning and all the birds sing I’m not complicating anything I’ll have another then I’ll go to bed But I’ll dream of you.”
That Dead influence is in fifth gear, with the guitars harmonized but biting, and quick to cede the spotlight back to acoustic instruments when the tempo shifts and the next verse starts. Trained on his frequent covers of “Wharf Rat” and “Bird Song,” he’s taken the best elements of the Dead’s five-piece era and translated them to his music. The Cardinals can turn on a dime, where roaring, distorted passages played with total authority can switch back to the gentle breeze without so much as a head nod. He’s married this surreal, poetic verse with ringing guitars and shifting tempos in a way that keeps the music challenging and daring, all while calling out allusions to his background: Tennessee honey, bluebirds, cotton fields, rocks on the mountain. He’s calling out to the South and its painted landscapes, and in this entire process, he’s helped give voice to the Cardinals. And he does it within the first five minutes of the album. “Magnolia Mountain” doesn’t just announce the record. It introduces the listener to a contained universe. And given his choice of medium, this is important if his double-disc experiment is going to have any chance of survival. For all the hemming and hawing about reviewers
He maintains this new template and style, and like a good mix tape, he steps on the gas a bit.
As the song rolls through, the imagined scenarios get less idyllic and more realistic, and with each verse, the singer is more and more aware of his plight and how this situation has him pegged for sorrow. With the line, “We were nothing, we were only the past,” Adams’ voice creaks and changes as the acknowledgement begins to sink in — she’s gone. Not only is she gone, everything 8
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she represented is gone. That chapter is over. All that’s left are memories, which won’t do anyone much good now, considering they’ve been rendered obsolete by the fact that this particular romance has been called off. What good are those memories, the song asks, if the person they’re made with are gone? This seems as good a time as any to talk about Adams’ greatest gift, which is his singing voice. Without being classically trained (as far as I know; I think Minor Threat and Ratt had as much to do with his singing voice as Willie Nelson), Adams is able to routinely push himself and his voice to reach notes that many of his peers wouldn’t dream of pulling down, and he does it while keeping his country aesthetic in place. It sounds silly, but he has a pretty voice, and he’s in full control of it throughout Cold Roses, and especially on “Sweet Illusions.” In the last act of the song, Adams ups himself from his normally high register into a near falsetto. Besides being an impressive turn and keeping the listener engaged, he also brings his story to a new place, his anguish fully represented by this more intense range. Soon after, everything drops out, leaving just an acoustic guitar, followed by the deliberate pace of the song picking back up only to let go again as he delivers a low, strained plea in a near whisper — “thanks.” It runs up again after that, into another verse, another chorus and one last impassioned plea: “I ain’t got nothing but love for you now.” In both the structure of the song and in his impassioned performance, he’s done everything he possibly could to make his case and convince his subject of what’s in his heart. And it’s not enough.
intertwined with both parties asleep. But, this too is an illusion, because all this can’t belong to the present or future, so it might as well have never existed. The very fact that it has, though, is a special kind of torment. And Adams lays that out immediately: “Something in you dies when it’s over,” it goes, and while it’s a common theme through the annals of rock and roll, rarely is it stated so plainly and laid so bare as to be nearly shocking. He’s not dancing around the subject, and he’s not deluding himself with hollow cliches, like “it’s better to have loved than lost” or whatever else it is that happy people say to the emotionally destroyed. And he asks his departed another basic question that could well sum up the central feelings on all of Cold Roses:
These desperate memories are carried on in “Meadowlake Street,” which begins as an even quieter rumination on the thought of dreaming on one of life’s lost chapters. Here, Adams sounds less desperate and less likely to run his fingers down the wall in agony, but there’s an almost creepy tenor to his measured, focused sadness. He starts with the acknowledgement of the happy times that must have existed in order to create these deep feelings of despair. He’s looking at her, and for a moment, the best memories are the ones that bubble to the surface. He sees everything he’s ever loved about her, from the moon that shone over their quiet moments on the summer grass to private scenes packed with those little moments of intimacy that only couples really see, maybe a pair of socks on the couch or two arms www.staticandfeedback.com
“If loving you’s a dream that’s not worth having Then why do I dream of you?” Right after the first chorus, he pulls a cool little trick that again exemplifies how adept the Cardinals were to taking the most basic elements of his songs and turning 9
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them into tiny examples of exposition that lift entire pieces from “demo” to “take.” He begins to sing this extended allegory, of being the home she grew up in and the tree she played under as a child, only to see that tree be cut down and become a boat, that was swallowed by the ocean created by her own tears. And now that home that he provided, that he was, is now a beaten ship decaying on the bottom of the sea. As he starts to sing, the words are left practically alone save for the light touches of an acoustic guitar. But there’s more going on in the the background, light shading and strings hiding behind Adams’ elevated whisper. The drums are just a shadow in the first couple of minutes of the song through all this, not much more than a barely audible ominous thump in the distance. But just before Adams brings the boat back, washing up to the ocean of her, and he and company sing “Boats out on the horizon,” the drums kick up to the front of the song, mimicking the rhythmic motion of vessels cutting through the current towards the shore. From there, the wind kicks up, the guitars strum a little more fiercely and the bass, in lock-step with the drums, keeps momentum, and he flies into the final verse. Now there are keyboards whirring, more voices have joined his, the guitars are bright and loud and ringing, and they’ve all met to ask the same question, that question that keeps popping up literally here and figuratively through the entire collection: “Why do I dream of you?” She’s clearly gone, you know. However many there might have been, whether just one lost love or several melded into a singular literary device, there’s a near-constant pining for them through the record, and it might be stated most clearly in the downcast “When Will You Come Back Home.” But the story here isn’t as cut and dry as the title would indicate, as in the Allman Brothers Band’s classic “Please Call Home,” whose narrator is simply waiting by the door for any sign of return and a second chance.
All that longing and acceptance of the inevitable is a common trait that links all of the songs on side one, with dreams colliding with reality and the narrators left picking up the pieces and waiting for some kind of release. And while that leaves plenty of cohesion, it doesn’t do much as far as resolution. To the extent that these themes are discussed on these songs, they’re repeated throughout the following three sides, expanded upon, toned down, made more serious and more whimsical. Adams and the Cardinals aren’t done, and they work the gears to find new space as Cold Roses continues.
ll this downbeat discussion on love and loss and that never-ending sense of dissatisfaction needs something to foil it a bit, and thankfully, there’s enough moments of levity tucked within the grooves of Cold Roses to make the ride seem more winding than just a straight road into the bleak nothingness of dying alone. Sometimes there are loud guitars, and sometimes those loud guitars rock. One of the things that always separated Adams from some of his dough-eyed singer-songwriter peers is his unabashed, unironic love of all things rock and roll. Whether it’s glam metal or CBGB’s-esque punk or the biggest, brashest arena rock, Adams has loved it all as much as he does Neil and Dylan and Gram. There’s no room for guilty pleasures within his musical input sensors. It all rocks. So in a fitting tribute, his intro at the opening of “Beautiful Sorta,” a grimy, distorted garage rocker that starts side two with a boom, is a direct reference to David Johansson’s “When I’m in love…” bit from the New York Dolls’ “Looking for a Kiss.” In addition to the quick homage it pays to some of the earliest punks on the scene, it also showcased the inherently goofy side of the man — the RATT t-shirts and bad jokes and on-the-spot songs he routinely sports during shows never felt like an act, but rather the outer workings of a dork gloriously comfortable in his own skin. A skinnier, shorter version
Here, it’s not clear who’s home and who’s waiting by the door, if anyone is. The singer could be homeless and the subject could be dead. Or, simply, she might have moved away, and he’s longing for her return, leaving “Carolina every night in my dreams” to be with her, only to find him back in this undesirable situation. And as much as Adams is wishing for some kind of resolution, www.staticandfeedback.com
the admission that “no one leaves the lights on in a house where nobody lives anymore” is the kind of sullen resignation that he can so artfully deliver when he wants to.
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of Henry Rollins, unabashed in his equal love of metal and jamming and sci-fi, who also happens to write songs with a country feel, is here slamming out a song that has just as much Television in it as it has Willie Nelson.
country tinge that would make the 1970s version of Mick Jagger snicker. Within the storyline of “Cherry Lane” is the dreamer that pops up so often on this album, imagining the happy home with the girl and the sublime life of long walks and long nights that all exists so pleasantly in his brain.
In the vein of constructing an entire, self-supporting universe on Cold Roses, “Beautiful Sorta” is exactly the kind of outlier that makes the entire presentation work. Rather than a homogenous blend of ringing, twangy guitars and tales of anguish, there are bits of color dropped in for effect. There are three-minute rock songs played with all the delicacy of a dump truck, and there are ballads. There’s room at the table for everyone. Appropriately, “Beautiful Sorta” is immediately followed by one of those lilting country ballads, the type of which provided the highlights from Heartbreaker and Demolition. With the pedal steel guitar and a piano providing the most significant background, “Now That You’re Gone” is another tale of being alone, taken from the same perspective of “When Will You Come Back Home” but a few months down the road. The house is a little dustier and messier, the beard is thicker, and the singer is still alone, waltzing himself to memories of what can never be.
But there is a dramatic shift. The music drops out, and Adams comes back alone with just an acoustic guitar and the admission that everything has only been a fantasy: “I can never get close enough to you.” And that’s it. For all of the fun dreams and visions of a happy life, all that’s left is the reality that it’s a dream too far. And those words repeat over and over, like a mantra in depression, a cathartic release in the face of a cruel reality. “I can never get close enough to you.” Again, there’s a step back, which moves with the tide set on this side. “Mockingbird” is another solitary reflection on what’s failed or failing; in this case, one where the singer is watching someone else disintegrate and the challenges that come with staying in that situation. Here, the main issue seems to stem from guilt, with the line “But the way I’m loving her/Must not be enough” the clearest signal that the song’s narrator is beating himself up over watching someone fall apart. Of course, that starts the kind of vicious cycle that comes with toxic relationships, something Adams knows too well in song form, and that theme is further explored on “How Do You Keep Love Alive.” It’s actually not hard to hear this song as the second chapter of what took place in “Mockingbird,” with the girl either gone or disappeared or, perhaps, still in the situation and completely distant. There are myriad ways to take a line like “When someone you love/Someone you love is supposed to make you happy.” Did she leave him? Did she die? Has she just become some kind of invalid?
Of course, that starts the kind of vicious cycle that comes with toxic relationships.
“Now That You’re Gone” also features another fantastic setting for Adams’ voice, recording with such sonic concentration that the room sounds like a heat-driven echo chamber. It creates a haunting effect, as if he’s singing in this desolate, empty home that once held the two of them, where they once held each other, and so on. All that’s gone. All that’s left is this ghostly voice. But it’s always impressed me how he’s balanced these two sides of himself. Positioning “Now That You’re Gone” right after the raucous “Beautiful Sorta” allows him to channel both personalities within one song on “Cherry Lane.” “Cherry Lane” begins with an almost Springsteen kick, undercut by such a significant twang as to snap the listener out of the gentle, saddened haze that “Now That You’re Gone” had just worked so hard to create. Again, just as heartfelt as anything else on the record, it has the good sense of humor to incorporate the sort of effected www.staticandfeedback.com
Or, did this ever exist as a relationship in the first place? Another reading could be that of an unrequited love, with the final verse suggesting that this was a partnership that never actually got out of the singer’s head. Another distant, romantic ideal, left untethered to 11
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the point that it consumed him, and now here he is, alone and wondering why the girl he loved is making him so miserable. She wouldn’t have had to do anything in that situation, other than exist outside of his world.
no unifying narrative linking them all together. And in programming a double album, it never hurts when the second disc starts off with a strong tune that reinforces the message of the opener.
It winds side two down on the lowest of notes, to be sure, but it’s another part of the story, and in Adams’ case, a common theme within all of his songs. By the time of Cold Roses, he was finding ways to explore those emotions that weren’t quite so blunt, but retained the same guttural punch as earlier songs like “Dear Chicago” and “Wild Flowers.” It was also a product of the freedom he was feeling, and where a song like “How Do You Keep Love Alive” might have been relegated to the bootlegs earlier in his career, he was free to include it in the arc of the album here.
Like “Magnolia Mountain” does for the first half of the album, “Easy Plateau” guides the listener back into one of the more carefree, kicked-back levels of the Cold Roses realm, heavy on free-flowing spirits and living for the moment. It starts similarly, too, to “Magnolia Mountain” with a quick, acoustic refrain ushering in the full, lush arrangement of the band. And again, it paints a serene picture of this metaphysical resting place where the singer and his companion can escape the grind of every day life.
o much of the story of this album, obviously, is everything that came before it. All the fighting and strife and, most importantly, growth that went on in the years before this record was cut brought Adams to the point where forming this band and creating this album could even be a possibility. And that, and so much still had to go right to record a set of songs that worked this well. To listen to Cold Roses is to hear the years of frustration of being told “no,” of seeing band members leave or be fired, of learning that his songs couldn’t be released the way he wanted them to be released. At this moment, Cold Roses sits at nearly the exact midpoint of Adams career, but it’s always felt like a destination. But another important part of all this is how well this album works on its own terms, within its own context. In the constant re-listening that this project required — no complaints on that front, certainly — the simple truth that this album works better than any of his other albums when separated from the rest of the catalog. Its songs are accessible, but distinct to this era. There may be hidden codes in the lyrics that we’ll all be trying to decipher as long as we’re here to think about those kinds of things, but there’s nothing that would require deep knowledge of the Demolition era, for example, to crack it. Part of that is the development of the sound of the album, and everything here sounds like it should be played together. And part of that is the pacing, having the songs placed in order to tell little stories, even if there is www.staticandfeedback.com
Where it differs from “Magnolia Mountain,” though, is in the sense of urgency. That reckless energy that exists in the album opener is traded for a more mischievous spirit here. And with that, the shifts in tempo and volume are less abrupt. Passages slide in and out, verses slip down into the chorus before peeking their heads back around. Sleepyhead, he implores, let’s take a ride. It’s the easy listening groove that pops up magically on the AM dial. It’s just a good time. There’s so much chaos and anguish in this album, and in life, and halfway through it, it’s nice to get a bit of a break. “Easy Plateau” is a rest stop on Adams’ highway before the heavy thoughts return.
Growing up in the Northeast, most of my exposure to the South has come from a small handful of quick trips through the upper part of the region, a few books and, of course, music. From what I could see briefly, and from everything I’ve read and heard, the common link between all of the literature and history and oral traditions are that of family. The lineage of an area seems incredibly important; where parents came from, where folks grew up, which county they played football in, where they went to school, where they worked, where they retired, where they died. If I can hang on death for a moment, the thought of where one dies seems to be as pivotal a decision as where one’s living. And for that reason, a single line in “Let it Ride,” as eloquent a song as Adams has ever penned, has always jumped out of the speakers and into my brain: Aug. 2013
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“Tennessee’s a brother to my sister Carolina Where they’re gonna bury me And I ain’t ready to go I’m never ready to go”
displays the influence in that band’s music in his own work. Notably, the guitar playing has the same flowing, melodic touches that leads to delicate moments on delicate records and quiet head nods from the assembled masses listening along at home on headphones. That guitar style is basically what drives “Rosebud,” with a lyric that follows the slow rolling guitars, both acoustic and electric, his voice barely registering above a whisper as he sings to the mysterious person who still sings to him in some respect. More than a story, this song sets a mood and offers a mid-side change of pace, the foot stepping off the accelerator to give the listener a chance to breathe while the singer takes a look within himself.
It might seem like a small thing or even qualify as a throwaway line, but the notion that he already knows that he’s going to be buried, and likely die, in North Carolina just always felt so foreign, as if I were studying some faraway culture. And, given the divide in this country by state and region and coast, I am. “Let it Ride” doesn’t hang solely on that thought, of course. But it’s clearly a preoccupation that the singer is actively working to avoid. Throughout the song, he is actively trying to buy time and avoid the pressures and consequences of life that are rapidly closing in. The road is too enticing to leave behind in favor of the glum repetitions of a small town. He wants to run. He wants to dance in the endless moonlight. He long ago lost his car, but he’s still got the keys to let it ride. It’s not a fun or a clean journey, but when has it ever been? Just don’t let the journey end, and there won’t be any problems here. And forgive the constant comparisons to the Grateful Dead, but it bears mentioning when Adams so gracefully
In thinking of Adams as a modern take on the classics that filled the airwaves in the 1960s and ’70s, this song almost strikes me as something that Gordon Lightfoot or James Taylor would try, those singersongwriters who dominated so much of the AM dial for so long and have since taken their place in grocery store PAs and Time-Life compilation commercials. That is to say, that this song sounds like something one of those artists would try, but the actual interpolation of the
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guitars makes this a much more interesting exercise. If this song came out in 1974, it would be glossed over and shimmied until it was ready for the charts. Here, it’s able to just be, and that influence of another band that didn’t do much in the mainstream, the Dead, is allowed to burn through.
love” summing up the main bullet point in so many of his songs, or it could be the way the guitars weave in and out, or it could simply be the way all the voices blend together on the extended “cold roses” that calls out at the end of the chorus. More likely, it’s all of these things. But it’s always impossible to say exactly what it is that makes this song great, and that’s part of the beautiful mystery of the song. And only the great songs leave enough unexplained as to keep that mystery forever. And even if the next song doesn’t have that same built-in mystique, it keeps all of the elements that make the songs on side three so successful — questioning lyrics, ringing guitars, different shades of Adams’ voice, the driving Cardinals’ bottom-end — and ties it together in the classic format of a singer calling out to some unnamed object of affection. “If I Am a Stranger,” as jangly and catchy a country-rock tune as he’s ever written, captures a side opposite the one he usually uses in his songs. He’s longing for someone, for sure, but rather than coming from a place of ingrown heartbreak, he’s singing as someone making one of his last pitches before that sense of loss has a chance to kick in. It’s a country motif that’s pretty common in the genre, yet for all of the twangy influences in his music, he doesn’t invoke that specific ploy very often. It’s more than just “please be with me” or “why did you leave me,” but “you can’t leave me.” It’s more proactive than most of his songs with this relationship bent, and because of that it carries a sense of urgency that doesn’t exist elsewhere in his catalog.
But of all the spots on this record where their impact peeks through, it’s never as strong as on the title track, “Cold Roses.” It’s a song that could well be an anthem and, among a certain set of fans, is. It has lyrics that are a little opaque and vague, but are constructed in such a way as to inspire the same kind of endless investigation that “Like a Rolling Stone” has earned. It starts with a burst and keeps building from there. Instantly, comparing any song to anything Bob Dylan recorded is bound to do it a disservice. But that’s merely to demonstrate that it’s one of those songs that has more mystery than is possible to uncover, whether it’s buried in a piece like this or reserved for its own exposition. It has so many moving parts, and feels so much like the sum of its three sides that it’s both firmly in its place on this piece of vinyl and also could be broken off as something of a mission statement for Adams at this time. His voice cracks and strains in the verses, then cooly slides into a soft, harmonic approach with the rest of the Cardinals on the chorus. And then there’s that refrain, with Adams gently yowling with something that’s nearly a cross between a yodel and a mating call. Left with just the vocals as the instruments momentarily bow out, Adams and the rest of the Cardinals are left with just Saturday’s bruises and cold roses. It could mean anything. It could mean nothing. But in this context, it means everything.
Leaving the generational sense of mysticism behind, then, “If I Am a Stranger” captures all of the feelings of wanting and unease that have been made apparent on Cold Roses to this point, wrangles them all and spits it out in one of the more familiar faces of the genre that have appeared. And it points the way to brighter sounds and simpler themes on side four.
Not to stack it against one of the unquestioned greatest songs ever written, but it is to say that it’s one of his finest moments, whether the discussion is “great songs on Cold Roses” or “Ryan Adams’ most memorable songs.” It could be the line “We don’t choose who we www.staticandfeedback.com
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eeping the sound and leaving some of the weight behind, the final stretch of Cold Roses starts out firm and bright, calling back to one of Ryan Adams’ strengths: his ability to write a song that just feels good in a bar. So why not do that once in a while? “Dance All Night” is likely the only song on Cold Roses that I could imagine settling into Gold’s running order. It could be the bright harmonica at the start that recalls “Firecracker,” but it’s more the whimsical lyrics and the harmonized choruses that places it a little out of Cold Roses’ firm realm. It sounds more at home coming out of a band in some rural Tennessee bar, with the wooden tabletops a little damp from the bourbon glasses sweating past the napkins. There’s a vision of an alternate reality Cardinals in jeans and vests, smiling and cracking jokes with the regulars between songs and churning out number after number with this feel. Music feels good, and sometimes it’s important to remember what those songs can mean to people looking to step a little outside of themselves sometimes.
“And in the shadows of the past When you’re spinning so fast It’s hard to see it coming And it never lasts” It’s a reminder to keep things in priority, and it’s a message that’s certainly reinforced in the next song, “Life Is Beautiful,” which is another that works to balance out the gloom that creeps up so often on this album and in life. Like “Dance All Night,” it’s upbeat, but it drives more in the vein of “Beautiful Sorta.” It’s a great example of the Cardinals ability to stop and start, switching gears from third to fourth and back, and more evidence of their versatility. But, at some point through the years, a closer inspection of the liner notes revealed a bombshell, sitting silently under the lyrics: “RYAN ADAMS — ALL INSTRUMENTS” It had never occurred to me that this song wasn’t a product of the full band. Instead, Ryan Adams pulls his best Paul McCartney impression, running from instrument to instrument to paint a portrait of a band in with their hammers and nails, pounding out the song. Whenever I’ve listened to the song, I’ve had a vision of the Cardinals together in a room, maybe a little dim with black lights in the corners setting just the right mood illumination for the effort, and just pounding out this song, harmonizing alongside Adams. It hadn’t hit me that this vision might be an illusion, the rock and roll answer to movie magic. And it all builds to the sunset farewell.
It sounds more at home coming out of a band in some rural Tennessee bar.
Because those heavy feelings, like the ones present on “Blossom,” are the ones that tend to stick with us longer than the rest, even if they aren’t as plentiful. In something of a return to “How Do You Keep Love Alive,” the singer is casting questions onto someone else that he can’t control and doesn’t know how to reach. Here, he’s waiting and ready, and she’s closed off and disinterested. And, short of a desperate plea, that’s how it’s going to stay. It’s the cold reality of relationships and how we interact romantically as people — most of it won’t work. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it doesn’t even though it’s incredibly close to working. And it’s that kind of struggle that leads to a verse that sums up the entire record, if not all of his catalog up to that point: www.staticandfeedback.com
On the vinyl edition, the bonus track “Tonight” is tagged onto the end of side four, which unfortunately takes away some of the emotional wallop of closing with the crushing “Friends.” In listening to all these songs on an endless loop of heartbreak, it was easy to slip into the kind of eternal ennui that seems to come with listening to the saddest songs available. For such a personal, affecting album, the closing “Friends” delivers that last reminder 15
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record yet have, in retrospect, assigned this as the appropriate soundtrack. And I’m not special. Anyone who isn’t an absolute anti-socialite has had these kinds of markers in their lives, amazing experiences and awful decisions alike. That this song could re-ignite all of them at once speaks to its simple, delicate power. But for as long as our minds are with us, so are those moments, the great ones and the good ones and the ones we wish had never taken place. And at the end, either the end of a friendship or the end of the ride, there are probably some severe thoughts that can shake a person to the foundation. All those thoughts are so eloquently phrased by Adams as he brings the journey laid bare within this album to a close. Records can be replayed for as long as they’re in tact. They’re fleeting moments that come and go and only live on as shadows in our heads. It can’t be easy to see these things stack up at the end, looking back on everything that’s been, could have been and won’t ever be again. They’re all flashing little fragments of time that won’t come back.
that heartbreak is inevitable and necessary if we’re to feel anything beyond selfishness. “This afternoon with you was something like a letter The kind that someone writes but never sends” “Friends” isn’t a song about a lost love or missed opportunity, but is instead a simple rumination on the connections we make, how they disappear and how they’re essential for life to have added up to anything accomplished. The lost loves deliver the deepest, most memorable blows, for nothing but the simple fact that baring everything to someone, only to have them go, will leave a person feeling the emptiest. But relationships aren’t limited to boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses, and intimacy isn’t relegated solely to monogamy. There are a lot of important people in our lives who were the keys to happy memories and incredible moments and tragedy and triumph, if we’re lucky. But, like everything else, through no one’s fault but the mortality we’re given, it doesn’t last forever.
“And when we pass on I bet you miss your friends.”
ay 17, 2005, was a Tuesday and a bright, sunny day that served as one of the first signs that summer was on its way in Massachusetts, an early respite from rain and cool temperatures in the sweet spot before humidity and mosquitoes descend on New England. That day, I got in my car and drove from New Bedford to Boston, up Mass. Ave. and across Commonwealth to a parking lot near Boston University, parked, and walked over to the former Avalon Ballroom behind Fenway Park on Lansdowne Street. Ryan Adams was in town, on one of his early tours with the Cardinals. Cold Roses was two weeks old at that point and already felt like an important moment in Adams’ tumultuous career, and hearing those songs live was as exciting as anything I could’ve envisioned.
“And when you’re good to me It makes me blue because some day it’s gonna end…” I zoomed back to so many scattered flashes while I re-listened to this song for this project. I thought about people I’d met since this song was released, relationships come and gone, people who were hurt and those that inflicted the damage for reasons that likely were never malicious, some things that happened before I even heard this song, moments where I was no where near this www.staticandfeedback.com
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Adams was deep in his haggard-genius look, with his hair long and disheveled, a thick, scraggly brown beard, glasses and, by my recollection, wearing denim from head to toe. And he came on stage and opened with what I later learned was “A Kiss Before I Go,” which wound up as the first track on his next record, Jacksonville City Nights. Next came “The End,” again from that record, and “What Sin Replaces Love,” and “Games,” and “Peaceful Valley,” and on and on it went, playing song after song that wouldn’t be released for months. “We’re playing songs right now, this first set, some of this stuff is from a record that’s gonna come out, I think August 9th, it’s called Jacksonville City Nights and that’s what you’re hearing now,” Adams mumbled to the crowd between songs. “I know I’m supposed to be playing the one that just came out a week ago, but forgive me, I digress into the future.”
He wouldn’t actually get to a song from Cold Roses until “Mockingbird” popped up, the 10th song in a jamheavy night. Cold Roses was still warm in the hands of the more dedicated fans, but he had already moved on, the creative train taking him down with more songs and more thoughts and more ideas to chase. As restricted as he’d felt in his earliest days with Lost Highway, recording the mash of styles on Gold and chopping up records for Demolition and writing Rock N Roll to get away with Love Is Hell, he was completely uninhibited on stage that night. Cold Roses was the catalyst for that, a sprawling double-record that served as the most vivid portrait of this prolific artist that we had yet seen. But not even two weeks later, the musician who’d recorded those songs was gone. He had moved on. He was free. The moment had passed.
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Written, researched and edited by Nick Tavares Copyedited by Suzanne Day Cold Roses poster and memorabilia provided by Ryan Robidoux
REFERENCES Archive Asylum http://www.archiveasylum.com/
Uncut Thorn and Frayed: Two-disc return to form from Americana’s Mr. Inconsistency July 2005
Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/radams2005-05-17.sbd.flac16
NPR Return to Country: Ryan Adams & the Cardinals July 4, 2005 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4729273
Forum musings: http://www.altcountrytab.ca/forum/viewtopic.php? f=2&t=21439&sid=4497a9dca1a89fa0fb05e7a6ba9d7fe0 Guardian ‘I’ve been jumping off bridges’ Nov. 20, 2003 http://www.theguardian.com/music/2003/nov/21/ryanadams.popandrock
Billboard: Ryan Adams Taking Hiatus From Music? Jan. 14, 2009 http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/269613/ryan-adams-taking-hiatus-frommusic
Rolling Stone Ryan Adams: Cold Roses June 2, 2005 http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/cold-roses-20050602
AV Club Ryan Adams: Interview Oct. 18, 2011 http://www.avclub.com/articles/ryan-adams,63532/
NME Adams, Ryan And The Cardinals: Cold Roses June 2, 2005 http://www.nme.com/reviews/7665
All cited lyrics written by Ryan Adams Original Cold Roses artwork by Andy West
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Ryan Adams' long, prolific road to 'Cold Roses,' by Nick Tavares