Ah, the lure of the open road — a central tenet of American mythology since Tom Joad rolled down dirt trails in his Ford-tough SUV. It’s also a mainstay of classic rock, which loves sentiments like “Let it ride easy down the road.” Nope, not the Eagles; that line is from Cold Roses, an overtly old-school double album that conjures vinyl-era folk heroes, from the New York Dolls to the Grateful Dead, whose cosmic guitar choogling is one template for Adams’ twangy new band, and whose iconography is bountiful here (roses, for example, figure in the album title, cover art, two song titles, and six sets of lyrics).
Ryan Adams fans — not to mention label execs — have no doubt spent years awaiting this album while dude dicked around with punk manqué, mid-’70s glam decadence, and intermittently brilliant notebook-cleaning. But is Cold Roses classic rock or just “classic rock”? There’s an air of formal exercise here, from the faux tooled-leather gatefold sleeve to the song titles (“Sugar Magnolia” + “Sugar Mountain” = Adams’ “Magnolia Mountain”). But if you can ride with the clichés, you won’t fault the execution. Dual guitar gods Cindy Cashdollar and J.P. Bowersock make for some jammy folk rock, while Adams’ tunesmithing and delivery have never been sweeter. As records about memory, love-loss, and a certain kind of ’70s sonic idyll go, Roses is as evocative as Beck’s Sea Change, if a little seedier.
While Adams seeks inspiration on the Ventura Highway, Sufjan Stevens takes asphalt less traveled. His second “state” record (see 2003’s Greetings From Michigan…) sounds as informed by middle-American community theater, church choirs, and John Adams’ American operas as any canonical “folk rock” it may resemble. Stevens dissects civic character, questions an apparently merciless God (the heart-crushing “Casimir Pulaski Day,” about a friend dying of cancer), and tells lean stories — including a chilling one about serial killer John Wayne Gacy — like the literary fiction writer he studied to be, using banjo, oboe, and foregrounded falsetto. At one point, a character asks, “What have we become, America?” Timely question, and one that Illinois offers more convincing answers to than a presidential town hall meeting. If the WPA ever gets revived, sign this guy up.