In 1997, the most surprising thing about Whiskeytown’s major-label debut was how quiet it was. The big-league polish, that much was expected — but not its overall subdued tone. If Whiskeytown’s mythically chaotic live shows back then evoked a liquor-driven bender, Strangers Almanac was the soundtrack to the early-morning hours after the peak but before the hangover. It was and is music suffused with exquisite, gin-soaked pain, all the more vivid for being self-inflicted. Excuse me if I break my own heart tonight, indeed.
In 2008, the most surprising thing about Strangers is that it didn’t make more noise commercially. Because if any album from the mid-’90s alternative-country generation was going to break big, this was it. Eleven years later, the music still sounds phenomenal, but it’s impossible to shake this album’s lingering vibes of unrequited expectations. This expanded two-disc reissue (which broadens the album’s context with the original thirteen tracks plus twice that many bonus tracks) only makes that feeling more acute.
As well as it holds up, Strangers remains very much of its time. The album emerged at a moment of great all-around optimism, near the apex of the go-go ’90s. Whiskeytown had literally grown up with this magazine, which ran a feature on the band in the 1995 debut issue and put them on its first (and only) No Depression concert tour in the spring of 1997.
That vote of confidence seemed well-placed. 1997 was at the tail end of a void created by the implosion of Nirvana and ’90s grunge, after which the music industry was searching for that elusive “next Seattle.” For a brief season, it looked like Whiskeytown’s hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, might be it — and that Strangers could be the Nevermind of alternative country. This did not seem far-fetched at the time (indeed, it’s what ND co-editor Grant Alden wrote in Rolling Stone). Between the Wallflowers and Lilith Fair, a slot for Whiskeytown at radio shouldn’t have been outside the realm of possibility.
The original Strangers tracking takes up most of this set’s first disc, and it remains a masterpiece of mood and pacing that builds up to several peaks. “Inn Town” opens the album, a downbeat evocation of coming back to the old hometown to “hang around with the people I used to be” (even then, frontman Ryan Adams was dreaming about fleeing). “Inn Town” is almost six minutes long and drowsily paced, a nervy way to kick off one’s major-label debut. But it’s a warm-up for one of Whiskeytown’s great on-record moments.
“Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight” is an astonishingly great song, one of Adams’ best-ever straight-country weepers. For all the melodramatic pathos of the lyrics, “Excuse Me” is so perfectly rendered that it finds triumph in its stubborn self-determination. When Alejandro Escovedo’s voice unexpectedly sails in with an out-of-nowhere cameo verse toward the end, it’s the arrow splitting the arrow in the bullseye.
Several Strangers songs echo Fleetwood Mac (a debt made explicit in the second disc’s bonus-track cover of the Mac’s “Dreams”). Among them is “Yesterday’s News”, which namechecks the Comet Lounge, the Raleigh watering hole where Adams used to hang around dashing off songs on bar napkins. That’s an ideal setup for “16 Days”, which should have been this album’s breakthrough hit. The opening guitar and fiddle riffs resolve into an irresistible hook, followed by one of the best ensemble-vocal performances Whiskeytown ever pulled off.
A bit of the band’s well-earned reputation for sloppiness creeps into “Everything I Do”, a slow-burn soul ballad with some messy guitar tones from lead guitarist Phil Wandscher. But that mirrors the song’s ramshackle emotions, making it sound like that hangover you’ve been trying to stave off finally kicking in.
“Houses On The Hill” restores order, a beautiful ballad suitable for playing at military funerals, tastefully embellished by Caitlin Cary’s fiddle and harmony vocals. “Turn Around” takes another spin through the Fleetwood Mac palette, followed by “Dancing With The Women At The Bar”, a barfly’s anthem that is Whiskeytown at its most spectral and mysterious.
“Waiting To Derail” is the most rocked-out song on Strangers, and in another setting it would probably make more of an impression than it does here. That’s because it precedes “Avenues”, one of Adams’ signature songs and a foreshadowing of some of his post-Whiskeytown solo acoustic directions. Adams gets in touch with his inner Paul Westerberg on “Avenues”, uncorking a devotional song of great beauty and depth.
The closing stretch of “Losering”, “Somebody Remembers The Rose” and “Not Home Anymore” sandwiches another “Houses On The Hill”-style ballad with two rockers, fading out on just the right note. The last word on Strangers is “gone,” followed by a ringing alarm clock. Time to wake up.
As No Depression co-editor Peter Blackstock’s liner notes recount, Strangers involved a difficult birthing process in the studio. You’d never know it from the results, because the album feels organic and well-structured from first note to last. Producer Jim Scott deserves a great deal of credit for getting such a mature record out of the band — and it was a good thing he did, given subsequent events.
Just a few months after Strangers Almanac came out in July 1997, an onstage blowup in Kansas City chased everyone out of the lineup except for Adams and Cary, who finished the final dates of the tour as an acoustic duo. They carried on with new members and made a solid though less cohesive follow-up album, Pneumonia; the 1999 Universal/Polygram merger put the album into limbo after Whiskeytown’s label Outpost was dissolved. By the time Pneumonia finally came out in 2001, Whiskeytown was gone, and Adams and Cary were both well into solo careers.
Both Adams and Cary have had plenty of high points on their own, some of them even higher than anything on Strangers Almanac; and Wandscher hasn’t done half-bad with Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter. Still, this remains: None of them have ever made a better record.