First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2001, Volume 8, #9
Written by John Metzger
By the time a band gets around to releasing its final album, the musicians often have stopped caring about the project. Consequently, swan songs rarely are worth their weight in gold and usually flounder among a group's worst endeavors. For a band like Whiskeytown, whose studio output and live shows never reached a level of consistency — with the exception of the group's unfaltering ability to always fall short of its potential — one might be inclined to simply ignore an album released so long after the collective's untimely demise.
That, however, would be a terrible mistake, for Pneumonia is quite a pleasant surprise, easily surpassing anything that Whiskeytown previously had recorded. That the album sat unreleased for three years is truly a shame, and one must hope that the lag won't stifle bandleader Ryan Adams' newfound creativity.
In the past, Whiskeytown often had followed closely in the footsteps of Son Volt, mining Gram Parsons' song style for all that it's worth. As a result, the band's albums tended to become mindlessly monotonic and inevitably bland. On Pneumonia, however, the group shifted gears rather dramatically, exploring a more expansive sound that draws upon the pop-leanings of The Jayhawks as well as the superior Uncle Tupelo-offshoot Wilco.
It's a direction that serves Whiskeytown well. Though its members still dig deep into acoustic-tinged, alt-country territory, the band never before has delivered such an exquisite batch of hook-laden, pop songs. On Don't Wanna Know Why, the group combines a bouncy melody with gorgeous harmonies and as a result sounds looser, freer, and more relaxed than on any of its prior endeavors. Likewise, Don't Be Sad, which was co-written with former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, glides effortlessly with intoxicating elation. Even folk tunes like The Ballad of Carol Lynn, Paper Moon, and the dreamily nostalgic Jacksonville Skyline are bathed in a mixture of subtle keyboard textures, horns, woodwinds, strings, fiddle, mandolin, and pedal steel guitar.
Much like Wilco did with Summerteeth, Whiskeytown does with Pneumonia. Newcomer Mike Daly fills a similar multi-instrumentalist role as Jay Bennett does for Wilco, giving the songs ornately orchestrated arrangements that allow them to truly blossom and soar. It's this Pet Sounds-approach that allows the band to leave behind the tired alt-country genre and explore bold new directions.
Make no mistake, there are occasional moments when Whiskeytown falters, and as a whole, Pneumonia really doesn't achieve what Summerteeth did. Despite this, it's still a minor masterpiece, chock-full of transcendent and powerfully enjoyable moments. It seems that Whiskeytown has finally lived up to its potential. It's too bad that this is the end.
Of Further Interest...
Pneumonia is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box