Proficiency notwithstanding, Ryan Adams still has a lot of growing up to do. His debut, last year's Heartbreaker, strayed from his alt-country roots and cannily played up the "singer-songwriter" tag. In a way, it seemed designed primarily to dispel his Whiskeytown legacy. And yet, Pneumonia, the final Whiskeytown album, was released with much fanfare earlier this year and is a more melodic piece than Gold, his sophomore solo record. Why? Mainly because with Gold, Adams is aiming for higher things than the alt-country gutter. While it may not be as immediately likable and tuneful as Pneumonia, Gold is the better album. Adams sways all over the place, visiting Stonesy rockers and tear-stained brooders with equal aplomb.
Adams's conceit is in his concept: Gold is an American travelogue. It opens with "New York, New York" and slowly works itself across the country, ending up on the West Coast for the closing "Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd." It's an ambitious move, but one that doesn't quite pay off. Adams is too erratic a songwriter, and Gold is an unwieldy album (originally slated as a double disc, it has been pared down to a 16-song, 70-minute set). Yet there are moments of Dylanesque brilliance here. Jay Farrar, on the other hand, is content to let things be. On his solo debut, Sebastopol, the former Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt frontman keeps to the same dusty trail he's traveled dutifully for the past decade. Except for a synth here and there, and a few worldly rhythms, not much of Sebastopol breaks from the familiar pattern. Farrar still has alt-country's laziest drawl, but Sebastopol is drenched in faux-Americana and wallows in its very pointlessness.