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Celebrity skin
Ryan Adams and the Rapture go disco!
BY SEAN RICHARDSON

When John Lennon named his 1975 album Rock n Roll (Capitol), he was referring to the original item: the discís hit single was a cover of "Stand by Me." But when NYC alterna-rock celebrity Ryan Adams names his new album Rock n Roll (Lost Highway) and sings a song called "1974," itís clear he has something more modern in mind. Like Iggy and the Stooges, who famously combusted that same year and whose legendary racket (and penchant for using years as song titles) Adams deftly approximates on "1974" itself. Like the trendy NYC club night Motherfucker, which bills itself as a "rock n roll dance party" and should be familiar to Bostonians who frequent the like-minded Start. Like the Strokes, whose pop-cultural ubiquity has dragged perennial fringe faves like Iggy and the Stooges and Motherfucker closer to the mainstream in recent years.

The Strokes are a primary reference point on "So Alive," the rollicking first single from Rock n Roll. So are the Smiths: a fervent disciple of the Replacementsí Paul Westerberg, Adams trades his usual rasp for a bruised-romantic croon that recalls Morrissey. "I am on your side/And so alive," is about all the words amount to, and Adams floats into a haphazard falsetto as the track progresses. Throw in a few layers of college-rock guitar majesty and a live disco beat and itís as pretty as it is danceable. Adams has been called a songwriting genius more than once, but on "So Alive," heís happy just to be the steel-throated bimbo next door.

 Adams recently told Spin that his first visit to Motherfucker was the catalyst behind Rock n Roll; as you listen to "So Alive," that much is apparent. He said, "They would play Sonic Youth and New Order, and I was thinking to myself, ĎI know how to play that stuff. Why am I not playing that stuff?í " Before long, he was hard at work with his friend (and a Motherfucker promoter) Johnny T, who played drums on the album and helped write several songs. This Wednesday at the Paradise, Adams plays his first US date since the release of the new disc with his latest band, Ryan Adams Killers.

 Long-time fans would be justified in wondering what any of this has to do with the 29 year-old heartthrob, whoís best known for wowing adult-alternative listeners with the Counting CrowsĖflavored 2001 album Gold (Lost Highway). Adams got his start with the popular North Carolina alterna-country band Whiskeytown, then got stuck with the New Dylan tag after the release of his first solo disc, Heartbreaker (Bloodshot). On the lilting Gold single "New York, New York," he began his obsession with NYC iconography: "Found a lot of trouble out on Avenue B/But I tried to keep the overhead low."

 After the release of last yearís stopgap hit Demolition (Lost Highway), Adamsís downtown Manhattan punk lifestyle finally started rubbing off on his music, and the result is the prolific writerís strongest flurry of releases to date. The Fingerís new We Are F**k You (One Little Indian) finds Adams and NYC punk veteran Jesse Malin mining vintage hardcore to savage effect, though both parties coyly deny membership in the band. Then thereís his pair of new Love Is Hell EPs on Lost Highway, on which he switches to a serious mode that recalls Heartbreaker more than anything else. Produced by John Porter (the Smiths) and originally meant to be Adamsís lone new album, the Love Is Hell EPs are off to a good start on the Billboard 200 albums chart alongside Rock n Roll.

 Thatís a lot for any Adams fan to digest, but Rock n Roll deserves its featured-release status. Itís brisk, catchy, and full of the sad/funny urban vignettes heís famous for. Like "So Alive," the opening "This Is It" races through the city streets on a euphoric Britpop groove. Hole-bassist-gone-solo Melissa Auf Der Maur contributes the oohs and ahs on "Shallow," a grimy rocker that finds Adams aching for sex: "Youíre taking me higher than Iíve been before/And leaving me shallow." He scores soon enough, though, thanks to his real-life girlfriend, actress Parker Posey, who collaborates with him on the sinister grunge rave-up "Note to Self: Donít Die." Things get really interesting on the Westerbergian love song "Wish You Were Here," which has probably been waiting to be written about Posey since Dazed and Confused came out 10 years ago: "Cotton candy and a rotten mouth/You know youíre so fucked up/You know I couldnít help but have it for you."

Proof that thereís no end to the celebrity spotting on Rock n Roll: a second Courtney Love buddy, producer James Barber, not only shows up but does an impressive job in his highest-profile studio gig to date. Green Dayís Billie Joe Armstrong joins Auf Der Maur on background vocals on the countrified standout "Do Miss America," which sounds sweet and mischievous at the same time. "Los Angeles is dead/The drugs ainít working," murmurs Adams on the seedy finale, "The Drugs Not Working." Really, what better way to end a disc spawned from the bowels of the NYC rock elite than with some good old-fashioned LA bashing?

IF THE STROKES are the face of the Motherfucker scene, then the Raptureís "House of Jealous Lovers" is its sound. An underground smash for the better part of the last year, the song is now the first single from the bandís new Echoes. Thereís also a new video for "House of Jealous Lovers," an arty cut-and-paste job that interweaves group performance footage with DIY party flyers and military combat illustrations. As for the track itself, it survives the transition from the dance floor to the marketplace (fragmented as that marketplace may be), since itís a quirky alterna-rock song built on an unshakable house groove. But like any club anthem, itís based on inclusion, as the smile on a virtual roomful of faces attests when its opening scream gives way to handclaps and an insistent cowbell. Frontman Luke Jenner does his part by emitting harsh guitar riffs and an urgent shriek, then brings the fun to a close by counting to eight in a sing-along. On paper, "House of Jealous Lovers" means even less than "So Alive" ó which is exactly how it got rock and disco in bed together.

 Echoes is the first Rapture album on Strummer, the new Universal-distributed label thatís also home to fellow alterna-rock travelers the Mars Volta. Itís the Raptureís second release since moving to NYC from the West Coast, where San Diego natives Jenner and drummer Vito Roccoforte formed the group in 1998. Migrating from their home town to San Francisco to Seattle, Jenner and Roccoforte went through a succession of band mates and released their first disc, Mirror, on the influential San Diego label Gravity. Upon moving to the East Coast, they consolidated the line-up with the addition of DC scenesters Mattie Safer (bass) and Gabriel Andruzzi (saxophone). Now out on their first tour in support of Echoes, the band will be at the Middle East next Thursday and at Ultra in Providence next Friday.

 The Raptureís second release, the EP Out of the Races and Onto the Tracks (Sub Pop), marked the beginning of a new era for the group: it was the first time theyíd worked with the NYC production duo Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy, better known as the DFA. The band had been heading in a funkier direction ever since their cross-country move, and in the DFA they found an accomplished studio crew with experience in both the dance and the rock undergrounds, Goldsworthy as a long-time collaborator with British trip-hop hero James Lavelle, Murphy as a member of NYC noisemakers Speedking.

 Like any other band of Motherfucker regulars, the Rapture worship post-punk forebears Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd. But they also look farther back into the 1980s, at house music, which is the first thing that comes to mind when you listen to the new albumís first cut, "Olio." In its original form on Mirror, the song is an eerie goth shudder; the new version is a frisky club banger with haunting vocals reminiscent of the Cureís Robert Smith. To me, the key to the Raptureís appeal lies in the transition between tracks one and two, when the big dance workout "Olio" bleeds into the San Diego underground-rock skronk of "Heaven." House transcendence and indie dissonance is a combination few major-label acts have tried ó and if they have, they probably havenít made it sound this natural.

 Echoes is paced like a dance mix, or at least a Spiritualized disc: lots of slow builds and a couple of mellow tunes that make big emotional gestures ("Open Up Your Heart," "Love Is All"). But thereís plenty for alterna-rock fans to get into, like the static guitar chill on the probable second single, "Sister Savior" and the spastic aggression of the title track. Like El Paso natives the Mars Volta, these border-town kids know a thing or two about Latin percussion, which becomes a crucial element of their sound over the course of the album. The DFA get writing credits on the two most electronic tracks, "I Need Your Love" and "Killing," neither of which is afraid to embrace crowd-pleasing melodies. If the future of NYC rock is on the dance floor ó as Ryan Adams and plenty of other tastemakers seem to think it is ó then the Rapture are leading the way.

Ryan Adams performs this Wednesday, December 3, at the Paradise, 967 Commonwealth Avenue; call (617) 562-8800. The Rapture perform next Thursday, December 4, at the Middle East, 480 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square; call (617) 864-EAST. Then next Friday, December 5, they move on to Ultra, 127 Friendship Street in Providence; call (401) 454-5483.

 


Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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