When Whiskeytown emerged in 1995, it was obvious that frontman Ryan Adams owed a substantial debt to pre- and postpunk alt-country heroes Gram Parsons and Uncle Tupelo. But he had his own stories to tell too. Specifically, the group’s debut, Faithless Street, and its masterpiece follow-up, Stranger’s Almanac, detailed a depressed and depressing South of rural towns where the mines, and the lives they supported, had been shut down for years and where even the cops just sat around waiting to die. Or so it appeared to an ambitious kid who could sense his own destiny in those one-stoplight towns and wanted the hell out. Adams’ Southland was as vividly drawn and emotionally ambiguous as Springsteen’s New Jersey. And like the Boss’ work, Adams’ songs and his band’s music represented a powerful cause and effect. God never shed His peace on this land, Adams declared early on, so I started this damn country band.

Now that damn country band — country-rock band, truth be told, and quite a bit more — has thrown in the towel. It’s probably for the best. Adams’ solo debut, released last year, had several wondrous moments, but even its most striking tracks felt as if he’d disappeared into his own record collection. That album conjured up The Beatles and Steve Earle, Springsteen and Parsons, but Adams’ unique sound and Southern point of view were mostly M.I.A. Pneumonia, the band’s final album, was actually recorded before that solo project, but it shows Adams already leaving the South on derivative, albeit often entertaining, day trips. “Don’t Be Sad,” for instance, might as well be by The Cure. “Paper Moon” features a stunningly lush and romantic mid-twentieth-century pop arrangement but lacks a melody sturdy enough to support its weight. “My Hometown” is practically a holdup — Adams walks off with everything from the Boss’ imagery and sound to his Jersey twang. Adams can change directions if he wants to, of course, but if he’s going to abandon his roots, it would be nice if he replaced them with something of his own.

Pneumonia‘s standout number is “Jacksonville Skyline,” during which a young man flees his past only to wind up right back where he started. Somewhere the night sky hangs like a blanket, Adams sings. I shoot it with my cap gun just to make it seem like starlight. Or like the final glimmering of Whiskeytown’s distinctive brilliance.

Categories: Music