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Whiskeytown

Strangers Almanac – 1997 (Outpost/Geffen)

Reviewed by Bill Sacks

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CDs by Whiskeytown

When was it, exactly, that Americans began vesting a fascination in the confessions of earnest drunks? I'll venture the safe guess that it was sometime between the deaths of Cotton Mather and Hank Williams, and I'll also venture this: we romance bleary ravers because, deep down, we'reafraid that if we don't have a rationale for keeping an eye on them they'll put something over on us. We are a suspicious lot, and the ugly little truth which follows is that the more time we spend expecting the revelation of a con, the more we inevitably seek to be complicitous in one. In that way, the confidencer becomes us.

Where that calculating dishonesty lingers in what Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams and Phil Wandscher have written songs of a sort bound tightly to betraying bad conscience, a deep and abiding sense of self-recrimination begging for cathartic relief. Listen to a song like "Yesterday's News," and you get the full exposition: it may be the most backhanded kind of truth there is, one which skirts tragedy by settling for overweened boredom or the lure of some new confidence, but it insists that there is an irreducible vitality to be had which makes the betrayal bearable. It's the tension between that kind of truth and the very serious threat of losing hold of it, stumbling headlong into real corruption giving Whiskeytown's work its wholeness.

The rest is a matter of craft, and they have it in abundance. Regardless of what you may have already heard, this band is not the rebirth of the early-'70's Rolling Stones; that they have taken important composing and arranging cues from them is obvious enough. But there are a number of other echoes from Merle Haggard's last Capitol sessions to Dylan's Rolling Thunder music to and the best of Paul Westerberg's back catalog, which are equally inviting. The record is not perfect - the compact disc's capacity is an invitation to self-indulgence which more musicians ought to refuse - but there is a breadth of ambition here which is the product of the best possible earnestness.