By: Dennis Cook
Things are really coming together for The Cardinals. Billed as Ryan Adams' backing band, what Cardinology (released October 28 on Lost Highway) reveals is a five-piece of overlapping pleasures and focused, no bullshit purpose, a rock 'n' roll band in the classic gatefold sleeve, hard touring model. The great comfort level of their stirring live performances has finally found some footing in the studio, and while perhaps not as instantly knock-you-back on your heels as Cold Roses or Jacksonville City Nights, there's a succinctness and clarity to Cardinology that distills their more rangy concert persona into one very fine rock album.
Need proof? Put on "Magick," simply one of the nastiest, catchiest rockers Adams has ever penned but bettered in many ways by the spiky electric guitar and vocal foil provided by Neal Casal (who also provides the booklet's boffo interior photography – dude has a seriously great eye for capturing musicians). A tremendously gifted singer-songwriter in his own right, Casal permeates the proceedings, oozing into all the right cracks and providing beautiful counterpoint to Adams' six-string playing and increasingly together singing. Adams really soars with a '50s Sinatra-esque oomph and dexterity here, particularly on "Born Into A Light" and "Crossed Out Name." There's just a lot of honey in his delivery and phrasing now, perhaps an embrace of his natural instrument or merely increased facility in accessing all the parts within his range. Something has occurred and Adams, ably aided by Casal throughout, sings his ass off on Cardinology.
A refining process has occurred with the compositions on Cardinology, where nothing tops six minutes and most cuts hover around four. While Adams is better able to fill longer ruminations than most out there, it's exciting and engaging to find these tightly packaged gems. The energy of the quick recording session (most captured in just a few days according to drummer Brad Pemberton) infuses tunes that hang their hats on often simple but very effective lines ("Let us down easy, Lord," "Will you confuse my love for the cobwebs?") The poetry here extends past the words to the music, which ever-dovetails with the lyrics, accented and commented on in non-verbal ways, music lived and lingered over with real care.
The apex of The Cardinals' togetherness on the new album may be "Natural Ghost," which finds Jon Graboff's pedal steel and Chris Feinstein's bass providing the glistening muscle that moves along a unified musical body, each participant giving themselves to a larger vision, a greater outcome than any single player could achieve informed by great understanding of the guys plugging away next to them. The mood on "Natural Ghost" is the sort of rough n' tumble contemporary gospel vibe The Cardinals often stir up live, asking rhetoricals that need asking and giving us the celestial sway to answer even if we don't exactly want to. They carry this feeling into "Sink Ships," which hangs on the darkly hopeful line, "The war is over, and I am wading in the sinking ships." Things brighten on the strummy, pop tinged "Evergreen," which seems like a love letter to Mother Earth as much as any person. "Like Yesterday" is gorgeous, dangling melancholy, and closer "Stop" is simply put one of the most moving, spot-on songs about human addiction ever. The stillness, sadness and longing of the piece simply can't be fully wrangled into a review. If you've ever knowingly done yourself great wrong because you were just too weak to stop yourself, well, this one is gonna crawl inside you, pulled along by Graboff's softly orchestral steel and Adams' perfectly underplayed vocal delivery.
Cardinology is a grower, likely to sneak up on you after a half dozen spins or so but once it's jumped in your bed you won't be anxious to kick it out. Even more than last year's Easy Tiger, this album points to the togetherness and huge potential of this band. Chemistry like this doesn't come along every day and it's heartening to see them evolving such a substantive and satisfying creative relationship.
JamBase | Wide World
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