Review Summary: If he can't have you, I guess no one else will.
As a relative unknown in the mid 90's alternative country realm, Whiskeytown specialized in crafting melodically memorable tunes that owed just as much to traditional classic rock song structures as they did customary country music instrumentation. The band never went for the gut quite like Uncle Tupelo did, but frontman Ryan Adams was a leader of great artistic depth whose soulful, smoky vocals provided a wonderful lead element to his band’s rustic but tenacious instrumental attack. This comes as a bit of a surprise considering Adams’ background as a punk rock singer prior to forming Whiskeytown, but the songs on display here show an artist operating right within his creative wheelhouse. Taking cues from the likes of Gram Parsons, Jay Farrar, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Steve Earle, Adams is a compelling vocalist in his own right. He rarely reaches back in aggressive fashion, but prefers to take a look at the middle road by singing with subtle force and aching sincerity.
Faithless Street is a beautiful record that achieves its stature by effectively jumping between straight ahead roadhouse rockers and acoustic driven ballads, most of which are speckled with added pedal steel guitar, violin, banjo, and electric guitar crunch. The effort is rarely clumsy despite the fact that this sort of music is usually more concerned with communicating the emotional centers of its performers and not the technical proficiency of their playing styles. Much like any rock record that looks to add a country music dimension to its music, success lies in the sincerity of the performances and locking in on the added sense of anguish that comes with incorporating traditional country music instrumentation. Whiskeytown succeeds in that effort and sound completely natural doing it on Faithless Street.
Although never unhinging into electric fury (except perhaps on the explosive “Revenge”) like Uncle Tupelo was so prone to doing, Whiskeytown takes many a cue from their groundbreaking counterparts. Songs like “Midway Park” and “If He Can’t Have You” maintain a muscular drive to them but without sacrificing Adams' mournful vocal stylings, clean guitar melodies, and the atmospheric effects of accompanying pedal steel guitar and banjo. Whiskeytown certainly took more notice of Uncle Tupelo’s Anoydne album as opposed to their more furious No Depression record when crafting this plaintive but powerful set. “Black Arrow, Bleeding Heart," Tennessee Square," and “Desperate Ain't Lonely” sound like they could have been lifted straight off of Anodyne with their stark acoustic leads and anguished pedal steel contributions. Whiskeytown adds a secret weapon in the vocal harmonies of Caitlin Cary, whose delicate but coarse voice adds a perfect counterpoint to Adams’ whiskey drenched vocal leads. Cary gets her own chance to shine on the traditionally minded “Matrimony,” where she gracefully explores the duality of marriage and the lonesomeness that comes from accepting the possibility of never finding the right counterpart to walk with through life.
The age old argument about what constitutes a great record usually surrounds opting for creation of a diverse, unpredictable set or aiming for thematic coherence throughout the entirety of an album. Faithless Street certainly opts for the latter lyrically and musically, but the flow and cadence of the album is so consistently excellent that it’s hard to fault the band for choosing that route. The best tracks on the album are usually a showcase for Adams’ charismatic vocal talents and the ability of the band to be simultaneously stark and uplifting, but there are occasional tracks where the whole band unleashes with youthful exuberance. Cuts like “Drank Like a River,” What May Seem Like Love,” "Top Dollar," and “Hard Luck Story” show the more upbeat, unadulterated side of the band with their quick tempos, soaring pedal steel melodies, and added electric guitar crunch.
The stunner of the album is the striking “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart,” the only track that truly transcends its blunt atmosphere thanks to an eventual vocal climax from Adams. The track would have worked well enough with its jogging rhythms and staccato guitar breakdowns, but Adams puts a stamp on the matter with a powerful, crooning vocal as the song reaches its apex. The song perfectly encapsulates what the band is all about; emotive craftsmanship meeting gritty dynamics.
Whiskeytown could have broken through with any sort of semblance of support from rock or country radio, but this sort of music was always destined to learn toward the underground. It's too sparse and forlorn sounding for traditional radio standards, but there's enough bounce and energy to appeal to any fan of traditional country music or even classic rock. Faithless Street is a fun record that will provide both release for its whiskey induced high energy and a mindful companion for its excursions into the realities of a broken heart. Those themes are the bread and butter for this brand of country infused rock music, but when executed with sincerity, its a brand of music that will transcend the cliches that 90% of similar acts so clumsily endorse. Faithless Street is just one of those records you'll look to in order to grind through the hard times, and sometimes that's all you need.