Whiskeytown, along with Wilco, Son Volt, the Old 97s, and 6 String Drag, were the standard bearers for the now-dissipated "No Depression" alt-country movement, a revival that mixed rock chords and punk attitude with traditional country songs and brought fans back to the heyday of country music just as Nashville was turning into a syrupy, homogeneous production line that was constantly cranking out new Garth Brooks or Shania Twains in the same way that Lew Perelman was foisting a new Backstreet Boys knockoffs onto the pop world every week. Initially viewed as a subgenre of alternative music, the No Depression movement was eventually recognized for what it really was: a return to basic, guitar-based songwriting, earnest lyrics about love and heartbreak and loneliness, and a blue collar attitude towards making music that hearkened back to bands like R.E.M. and U2, who won their global followings only after endless years of constant touring.
Unfortunately, Whiskeytown broke up after recording this album when frontman and principle songwriter Ryan Adams (whose name is only one frightening "B" away from the Canadian pop star's) decided to start a solo career. His first disc, "Heartbreaker", was a departure from the sound that Whiskeytown had established on their breakthrough record, "Stranger's Almanac". "Heartbreaker" led off with an argument between Adams and one of his backing musicians about which Morrissey album the song "Suedehead" appeared on, before launching into a pop-influenced country rave-up. Adams sounds like a completely different singer on "Heartbreaker" than he does on Whiskeytown's material: whereas with Whiskeytown his voice is subdued, almost a strained whisper, it is by contrast an exuberant yelp that can barely contain itself on "Heartbreaker" (even though a lot of the songs are bare-bones affairs, featuring only Adams' voice, an acoustic guitar, and occasionally a harmonica).
Many fans wondered if "Pneumonia" would ever see the light of day, given that there would be no tour to support it (Adams was already at work on his second solo record, the recently released "Gold") and that Whiskeytown's record company deemed it too offbeat to release. Eventually, the Lost Highway label (a progressive country imprint of Mercury Records, home to artists such as Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, and, strangely enough, Billy Bob Thornton), to which Adams is signed as a solo artist, decided to take a chance and release the record. And thank God they did.
This record is truly astounding, miles beyond what a fan might have expected for the follow up to "Stranger's Almanac". There are still plenty of rootsy alt-country tunes here, but most of them feel far more accomplished than similar tunes on Whiskeytown's previous outings (likely due to the production, which pushes Adams' voice a little more to the front and accents the songs' moods with organs and orchestral flourishes). The production in general is much cleaner, which compliments the varied instrumentation and pop-influenced song structures that push Whiskeytown's music in a whole new direction.
The first half of the disc is pretty much what Whiskeytown fans have come to expect from the band: guitar-based tunes that recall the earnest sentiments and back-to-basics songwriting of early country music. Adams' voice sounds extra-weary on these tracks, and you can hear the sadness from a thousand lonely nights simmering in his voice. However, even in the first track, "The Ballad of Carol Lynn" (which is probably one of the most straightforward country tunes on the record), you can hear evidence of the experiments that come to a boil later in the album. It is augmented by several instruments that have gone all-but-unused in Whiskeytown's previous efforts: piano, harmonica, and even some beautiful ornamental horns and woodwinds.
"Carol Lynn" is followed by two of the best tracks on the album, "Don't Wanna Know", a jaunty ode to being in love, and "Jacksonville Skyline", a tender recollection of a childhood spent watching your hometown lose its innocence. "Don't Be Sad", the fifth track, doesn't exactly sound poppy, but you can tell that there's something different about it; you're hearing something in Whiskeytown's songwriting that you haven't heard before. The shuffling drumbeat perfectly compliments the meandering arpeggio guitar chords and loose, upbeat bass line, all of which is interwoven with a subtle string section that wanders through the track like a slow southern river. Track seven, "Under Your Breath", deals with the realization that a relationship has suffered too much damage to be recoverable, even though it hasn't technically ended yet. It is an eerily quiet track, composed of little besides a subdued horn section, a softly humming organ, and the mournful tenor of an oboe accenting Adams' heartbroken voice as he sings the devastating chorus:
Sometimes I wish
I were deaf
Then I couldn't hear
The words you say under your breath
Starting with track eight, "Mirror Mirror", Whiskeytown kicks full gear into the new sound that the earlier tracks have only hinted at. "Mirror Mirror" itself is an exuberant, Beatles-influenced piece of pure pop, punctuated with a booming piano and a joyous full-band accompaniment that celebrates pop music in the way that only a full horn section can. This is followed by "Paper Moon", an eclectic but harmonious song that incorporates a multitude of different percussion instruments, string and horn sections, a ukulele, and a flute the flutters fancifully through the song like some cheerful ghost from the "Pet Sounds" sessions. It sounds like "Walking After Midnight" rewritten by a drunken Luau band at 3 a.m.but in a good way. Rounding out the really experimental section of the record there is "What the Devil Wanted", a soothing but creepy lullaby consisting mostly of an otherworldly piano loop (replete with lo-fi pops and skips) and Adams' unnervingly quiet voice.
The last four songs are a return to the roots-rock ("Crazy About You", "Bar Lights") and alcohol-soaked ballads ("My Hometown", "Easy Hearts") on which Whiskeytown built their reputation, each of which could be easily included on their earlier records but which sound perfectly at home on "Pneumonia" as well. All in all this album is a flawless performance from a band walking the tightrope between keeping their core audience happy while incorporating new elements into their sound, the same kind of revolutionary step forward as Wilco's "Summerteeth". And although Ryan Adams the solo artist looks like he will be around for a long time, it's a shame that we won't ever get to hear him in the context of this newly reborn Whiskeytown again; there's something about working in a band structure that unearths unexpected treasures in his always-solid songwriting.
"Pneumonia", then, is the end of a band that was just starting out on an intriguing journey, a triumphant fanfare heralding a new era that instead turned out to be a swan song. But what a way to go.