So the dust has settled, so to speak, on Ryan Adams’ cover version of 1989. Its due on LP soon, but likely reached its largest audience when first released online last month. Taylor Swift called it “an honor,” and reviews were mostly kind, if skewed in a sexist direction. Everyone has something to say about the best selling album of the past year. We did, but it was mostly that we love it. And Ryan Adams’ version, eh… it’s not all bad, but its missing something.
We have an on-again, off-again relationship with Adams, who is as prolific a songwriter as he is a producer of successful cover versions. He’s one of those artists where a fan could get frustrated, and spend a fortune, collecting the discography. We’ve been fans since we first bought Whiskeytown’s penultimate disc because it had a brief appearance by Alejandro Escoveda, but Adams’ solo records are a disappointing mixture of gems and duds.
You can’t entirely separate Adams’ output of albums from the entertaining drama to which he seems attached. Between his hostile retirement announcement and the “Summer of ’69” incident, his esoteric side projects like Werewolph and Sleazy Handshake, and his frequent changes of direction, Adams sometimes seems like a relic of the seventies, when rock stars were larger than life. It definitely makes us interested in each new album.
As the title of today’s post suggests, we’ve been thinking about one particular seventies singer, who bounced from band to band, and whose albums were a similar combination of compelling originals and clever covers. Ian Matthews first performed as a member of Fairport Convention, a British group featuring folks who clearly loved California bands like the Byrds or the Grateful Dead. At one point Matthews was sort of un-invited to a recording session, leading him out in to the wilderness of a solo career where he never settled in one place for long.
Matthews’ work included stints in short-lived bands, some of which are occasionally revived: No Faith, More than a Song, Matthews Southern Comfort, Hi Fi, and Plainsong. With these, and under his own name, he’s appeared on at least thirty albums, but even a seasoned collector would be confounded by a quest to find them all.
For today’s post we’ve recorded a few songs from Matthews’ early albums which we have enjoyed. These first two are from his 1974 album, Some Days You Eat the Bear, which is mostly covers. In addition to Tom Waits (whose “Ol’ 55” seems to have been ubiquitous on albums issued by Elektra and Asylum around the time) and Steely Dan, there’s an early cover of “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It,” which was written by Danny Whitten for the first Crazy Horse album. The song later appeared on Rita Coolidge’s best-selling Anytime…Anywhere and Rod Stewart’s Atlantic Crossing, both albums which certainly eclipsed anything Matthews recorded, but we really love his take on this beautiful song. The second tune from this album is one of the songs Gene Clark wrote while performing with the Flying Burrito Brothers.
These next selections are from the single album by Plainsong, a band which Matthews founded with Andy Roberts, whose previous work included playing guitar arrangements to accompany poetry in esoteric English acts the Liverpool Scene and the Scaffold. In Search of Amelia Earhart is heavily influenced by Fred Goerner’s 1966 conspiracy theory book, but isn’t entirely a concept album (not all the songs are about the famed pilot’s mysterious disappearance). Matthews’ fans consider this one of his best albums, and while it received positive reviews and they toured that year, the band didn’t last.
Matthews and Roberts revived Plainsong in the 90s and released several CDs, each of which were all but un-available here in the states. A 2005 double-disc collected the original 1972 album and also songs recorded for what would have been their second LP.
A cover of “Shake It” by Terrance Boylan (no, not “Shake it Off”!) was the only hit of Ian Matthews career. A single from his sixteenth album, Stealin’ Home, it reached #13 here in the United States. With Hi Fi he released a couple albums in the early 80s, exploring his songwriting in power pop instead of folk rock and also covering Prince’s “When You Were Mine.” For a while after this he worked in the A&R department at Island Record and then at new age staple Windham Hill. He has, on more recent solo records, used the original spelling of his name, Iain Matthews.
Here are two songs from Tigers Will Survive, Matthews’ second solo album, on which his Fairport Convention bandmate Richard Thompson appeared as “Woolfe J. Flywheel.” This album is much more directly connected to his roots in the English folk scene, but the title tune seems like a fitting theme song for the singer, who at sixty-nine is still performing infrequently. His last album, The Art of Obscurity, was released a few years ago on a fittingly unknown label called Fledg’ling, and billed in the notes as his last.
This last song, “Please be my Friend,” reminds us of “Friends” from Ryan Adams’ ’05 album with the Cardinals, Cold Roses. This is the sort of song that makes us think of the two as similar — in their original songs, both are often reaching out for the connection of a friendship. The Plainsong album is deeply concerned with what we do to get through disillusionment in a way that several songs on Adams’ solo debut, Heartbreaker, is as well.