Double Your Pleasure
Ambition Rides with Ryan Adams, System and the Eels

You know, Weezer notwithstanding, this is turning into a great year for new music.

Here’s what I mean. My favorite band in the world, the Choir, released their best album in 15 years last month. You would think it would be all I’d want to listen to, but I haven’t spun it in two weeks. I’ve had so much other great stuff occupying my player, all of which deserves consideration and praise in this column, that I haven’t found the time for re-listening to anything I’ve already reviewed.

To that end, this is my second column of this week. The other one goes on and on about Star Wars, and you can access it through the archive if you want to read it. I just can’t get any further behind the new stuff, especially considering the next few weeks will bring Audioslave, Girlyman, Coldplay, Dream Theater, the Levellers, the Foo Fighters and, as if all that weren’t enough, Eric Johnson’s first album in seven years. And, oh yeah, Billy Corgan, Michael Penn, Dredg, Fountains of Wayne, and on and on. So I can’t skip a week.

It’s especially important to me to pound this column out this week, since all three of the albums I’m reviewing are strong candidates for the top 10 list. I’ve seriously heard more great music in the past three weeks than I have in the previous four months. Here’s what I’m talking about:

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I dig double albums.

They make me wish I’d grown up in the age of vinyl. I love the idea of a record in chapters, two sides to each platter, requiring one to physically get up and flip it over. I love the idea of an artist planning his or her record with that in mind – a space between the first and second sides, a different tone, a final song on side one that hangs in the air and makes you want to hear side two. And double albums? Man, four sides. What could be better than that? Musical ideas so huge and rich that they need two whole records to hold them.

Of course, I know that a double album doesn’t mean an abundance of good ideas. If you suck, making a double record only means that you suck for twice as long. Still, I get a charge out of any artist deciding that the single-disc format is too small, that he/she has a story to tell that just needs the extra space. With the advent of compact discs, many of the double albums of old now fit onto a single CD, and in the case of something like Tommy or Zen Arcade or Tusk, I think that’s kind of a shame.

Naturally, the CD has given even more ambitious artists the ability to stretch out even farther. What would have taken three vinyl records back in the day now fits comfortably on two CDs, and what most people call double albums now are really triples. This only raises the stakes – does your concept really need two hours? Really? – and, of course, only excites me more when someone takes advantage of it. It takes a certain amount of hubris to say, “Here are my 30 tracks, take them or leave them, but I needed to release them all.” I love that kind of ambition and arrogance.

The format changes have certainly called into question the definition of a double album. Take, for instance, Ryan Adams, who is marketing his latest, Cold Roses, as a double. In the days of vinyl, he’d have been right – Roses is 76 minutes long, and would take up four sides. It would easily fit onto one CD, however, so his decision to release it on two has to be considered an aesthetic one. The choice becomes clear when you check out the packaging – he’s designed Roses as a miniature vinyl mockup, with cardboard sleeves and raised front and back cover artwork. Even the CD labels look like records.

If you’re expecting something that sounds like the ‘70s, well, you’d be right. Roses is credited to Adams and his band, the Cardinals, and it sounds like an old-time session, like a great rock band recorded live. It’s a nostalgia trip in more ways than one, since it represents Adams’ return to his Whiskeytown sound, all pedal steels and sweet melodies. After the crushing thud of Rock N Roll and the moody drift of Love is Hell, hearing Adams get back to the business of writing great country-rock songs again is invigorating.

And these are great songs, all 18 of them. Cold Roses is Adams’ first top-to-bottom excellent album since Gold, his most consistent solo effort, and rather than sounding like a retreat, it plays like a joyous homecoming. For the first time in years, his prodigious gift for melody never fails him. Just the opener, “Magnolia Mountain,” has more ideas in its five minutes than Rock N Roll and Demolition put together. The band is tight and emotional throughout, especially guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, who also harmonizes with Adams on most of the tracks. She’s not quite Caitlin Cary, but she adds an element that’s been missing since Whiskeytown broke up.

Unlike most double albums, which peter out by the fourth side, Cold Roses stays enthralling throughout. In fact, some of the loveliest songs, like “Blossom,” are at the record’s end, and its closer, “Friends,” is gorgeous. Adams cranks up the amps here and there, most notably on “Beautiful Sorta,” but for most of this album he spins one beautiful ballad after another, and his voice drips with feeling. This is absolutely the album his fans have been waiting for, whether they’ve been waiting since Gold, or Heartbreaker, or even Strangers Almanac.

Ever the prolific little bee, Adams plans two more albums this year, with the tentative titles of Jacksonville City Nights and 29. It’s entirely possible that his lack of quality control has shoved the awful stuff onto the latter two discs, and we can only wait and see. It’s a little scary, though, because Cold Roses has not one spotty moment. It’s his best work in a long time, and even if he louses it up with substandard work before Christmas, this album will still be among the best things you’ll hear this year.

But is it a double album? I’m not sure it qualifies in the digital age, but at least Adams didn’t split the discs over two separate releases. No, that’s the unfortunate tactic System of a Down has taken with their new records, Mezmerize and Hypnotize. Each is projected to run about 35 minutes, and both would fit onto one CD nicely, but they’ve split the tunes into two releases, one now and one in October, the better to get your money twice. If there’s an artistic reason for this, I won’t complain as much, but it feels kind of greedy, and considering the fierce political bent of this band, that’s surprising.

What’s not surprising, though, is that Mezmerize is terrific. (A quick aside: surely such a smart band knows that they misspelled “mesmerize,” right?) System is a heavy prog band, like the Mars Volta, but they never waste your time with 10-minute guitar solos or noise sculptures. Every System album starts with a bang, does the watusi all over your ass, and leaves without bothering to clean up. In a way, the brevity of Mezmerize works in its favor – it’s the fastest, most explosive, most head-spinning record this band has done. It hits like a bullet, and half an hour later, you’re on the floor, trying to catch your breath.

No disrespect to the rest of the band, but this is guitarist Daron Malakian’s album. He wrote pretty much all the music here, and it takes from such disparate sources as Frank Zappa, Slayer, Faith No More, the Clash and, in some of the vocal sections, even Brian Wilson, but it always sounds like System. Very few bands can be this heavy and still switch styles on a dime like System can, mixing in reggae on “Radio/Video” and new wave on “Lost in Hollywood,” and still hitting the old-school thrash on “Cigaro.” Musically, they have very few peers.

Still, the most potent weapon in their arsenal may be vocalist Serj Tankian. He has such complete control over so many different voices that if this rock thing doesn’t pan out, he could have a successful career voicing cartoons. Well, maybe evil cartoons. On Mezmerize he pulls out all the stops, ranting and barking and all-out screaming like a banshee on fire, but he also waxes melodic and subtle here and there. This album, unlike most metal records, is full of powerful, memorable melodies. If not for the last track, “Lost in Hollywood,” on which Malakian gets a case of Noel Gallagher Disease and takes the lead vocal, it would be the perfect System album.

The band’s liberal politics are in full force here, too. Lead single “B.Y.O.B.” (which stands for “Bring Your Own Bombs”) wonders why presidents don’t fight wars themselves instead of sending the poor, while “Cigaro” muses on the, ahem, masculine reasons for wars in the first place. “Violent Pornography” takes on the brainwashing of television, smacking down both the violent programming and the advertisements that support it. And “Sad Statue” imagines the statue of liberty wiping away tears, thinking about the current administration. “What is in us that turns a deaf ear to the cries of human suffering,” Tankian asks, and he has no answer.

While I do wish Mezmerize/Hypnotize had been released all at once, whether on one disc or two, this first installment has all but guaranteed that I will pony up the cash for part two. Yeah, they hooked me, but they did it by being a relentlessly original and fascinating band. They are the future of metal. If the members of Metallica can listen to Mezmerize and still think of themselves as in any way relevant, then they’re deluded.

Still, I can’t quite bring myself to call either Mezmerize or Cold Roses a double album, since by the modern definition, they would fit on single discs. No, when I think double album these days, I’m thinking of a wildly ambitious work that can’t be contained to one CD. The trick, the challenge, is to maintain the quality over more than an hour and a half. If you can do that, then you’ve earned my respect. Precious few double album attempts these days manage a consistency of vision and craft. That’s what I’m looking for – the ability to match one’s ambition with skill and artisty.

And honestly, I never thought I’d find something like that from the Eels. There was always something about this band that I liked, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I bought Beautiful Freak on the strength of “Novocaine for the Soul,” but found the rest of the record lacking. I bought Eels mastermind Mark Everett’s solo records, A Man Called E and Broken Toy Shop, and while they were pleasant, they didn’t do too much for me. But I did stick around for the next Eels record, and damn, am I glad I did.

Rarely has an artist come into his own as quickly and fully as E did on Electro-Shock Blues. A searing, quirky, heartfelt portrait of living with death, the album was recorded in the aftermath of Everett’s sister’s suicide and his mother’s death from cancer. The record was even more bizarre than its predecessor, and the whole thing had the feel of an autobiographical indie comic, sketchy and deeply moving. E hasn’t topped it since, although he’s made some corkers, especially Souljacker. The focus has been lacking, though, and some of the latter Everett records have felt a little tossed off.

Well, it turns out that E has been working behind the scenes for four years (!) on an album called Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, so in a way, everything since Daisies of the Galaxy has been a side project. That (ahem) revelation certainly raises expectation for the real deal, and it delivers. This is the ultimate Eels album, a return to the Electro-Shock Blues template, and a true double album – 33 heartbreaking songs in 93 minutes. It’s a beautiful homemade epic, just as rickety and grandiose as E’s best stuff always is, with no filler and a superb sense of flow.

Blinking Lights is a loosely arranged story of one man’s life, from birth through painful adolescence, through love and bitterness, and finally to hopeful old age, regrets and all. It is an album that only E could have made, so personal is the writing and so unorthodox is the sound. Everett crafts his magical lullabies with gently strummed acoustics, vintage keyboards, toned percussion and toy pianos, and yet somehow these simple little structures attain a grandeur that’s inexplicable. Blinking Lights is small and personal, yet sounds important and vast.

These are some of E’s best songs, too, especially the ballads, held together by his gruff, weary voice. They work on their own, but when placed in context, they achieve much more. Only E could write an affecting ballad called “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb,” and use the metaphor to comment on the ephemeral nature of life and time. That’s the kind of album this is – silly, yet deep and powerful. Like the best works, it takes you on a journey, and by the time E is contentedly sighing the sweet melody to “The Stars Shine in the Sky Tonight,” you feel he’s earned this grace.

There are too many highlights here to mention, most of them simple little ditties that add to the overall picture. E has composed a theme for the album that appears throughout, further unifying the proceedings, and he makes room for cameos by Peter Buck and Tom Waits. But this is his show, and it’s his best since Electro-Shock. It’s not quite as surprising as that record was, and doesn’t pack the same punch, but Blinking Lights is a delightfully sad masterpiece. And like the best double albums, it wraps you up in its storytelling spell, and it’s over before you know it.

I’m not sure what Everett can do to top this. Blinking Lights is the culmination of his singular style, an emotionally naked pop utopia made of broken parts. For such an ambitious project, this album often feels like it would fall apart on contact, and it’s that dichotomy, that otherworldly sensibility, that gives E his charm and his magic. This is not just one of the best double albums of the past few years, but one of the best albums, period.

And with that, I’m off to see Star Wars again.

See you in line Tuesday morning.