Lost Record of the Week: Whiskeytown, Faithless Street
Whiskeytown, comprising primary members Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary, showcases their strengths and highlights the band’s chemistry on Faithless Street. Adams seems to have the most presence on the record, likely because of his predilection for verbosity and his natural inclination for leadership. As such, the beginning of the record is focused on his voice and songs. “Midway Park” aligns with the solo material Adams would release later on, featuring his occasionally gravelly voice and falling ends of phrases, backed by an urgent rock arrangement. This gives way to a sparser verse, with just arpeggiated chords on the guitar, plucked mandolin, and an insistent bass ostinato, the change in mood common for Adams.
As the album progresses, a kind of definitive mid-90s alt-country sound is established. By the time the title track comes around, it is no surprise that it functions as a focal point for this style and for the album. An ethereal pedal steel emerges against the warmth of the triple-time acoustic guitar. But it is not all country—the rough timbres of the electric guitar and Adams’s voice balance out the song’s more traditional elements, placing it in line with alt-country classics like Uncle Tupelo’s “Whiskey Bottle,” and the vocal harmonies are beautiful. Adams even acknowledges the song’s style in his despair-drenched lyrics:
“So I started this damn country band
‘Cause punk rock was too hard to sing”
I wished that Caitlin Cary took more of a lead role on the album – only one song really features her singing solo. She has a lovely voice, well-suited to the genre and the band’s overall style, but it often gets lost in the more densely arranged songs. Her solo, “Matrimony” resonated with me, (at the time) a girl a week away from her wedding. She laments her mother’s longing for a fairytale wedding for her daughter, but ends each verse with a resolute vow that she cannot bring herself to go through with it:
“I don’t believe I care to marry
Though I cannot explain exactly why
Somehow seems to me matrimony’s misery
Simply a faster way to die”
I have to admit that the second half of the album lost me a little – it’s not that the songs are worse, but more that I started to lose focus. Perhaps this is the result of the extended version that I was listening to, rereleased in 1998 on Outpost Records. Nevertheless, when I was paying proper attention, the songs were great. “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight” not only has a classic country title, but reinforces the emerging self-pitying quality of alt-country/indie of the 90s and “Hard Luck Story” could have easily been a Gram Parsons composition. Adams also evokes the confident, but slightly fragile quality of Parsons’s voice in this tune.
I think this album has likely become part of the alt-country canon, if such a thing exists. Embracing the best of alt-country’s influences—punk, rock, folk, and classic country—Whiskeytown has compiled a nice package of songs that speak to and represent their angst-ridden, white, middle-class, suburban audience of the 1990s. Faithless Street demonstrates why Whiskeytown is a classic alt-country band and why its members went on to successful careers after the breakup of the group. I kind of worked my way backwards to this album, having always been a big Ryan Adams fan, and I’m glad I finally spent time on the whole thing.
*Lost Record of the Week is an effort to properly listen to albums in my collection that have been ignored for too long. Next week: Oh Susanna, Sleepy Little Sailor.