Whiskeytown

Pneumonia (Lost Highway)

Pneumonia was a long time coming. Recorded in 1999, it was a casualty of the Universal-Polygram merger that killed the group's Outpost label and left the alt-country standard-bearers in limbo for the better part of three years. The good news: Pneumonia was worth the wait. The bad news: The long delay has prompted the members to call it quits. The heart of Whiskeytown -- lead singer Ryan Adams and vocalist/fiddle-player Caitlin Cary -- each released successful solo albums in the interim and have decided to continue on that path.

For fans of Whiskeytown and its legendarily tumultuous though productive five-year existence, solo offerings are only a minor comfort. Driven by Adams's preternatural talent, Whiskeytown was always burdened by high expectations, from claims that the group would become "the alt-country Nirvana" to frequent -- and not entirely unwelcome -- comparisons between Adams and the late Gram Parsons. Though the seemingly star-crossed singer endured (and often caused) his share of feuds, lineup changes and drunken mishaps, the band managed to produce stunningly beautiful music, most notably 1997's Stranger's Almanac.

Whiskeytown's final album is rooted in the melancholy, bluntly confessional style that is Adams's hallmark. The band always wore its influences on its sleeve, and Pneumonia is no exception. An ambitious endeavor, it encompasses everything from the familiar, world-weary country of "Jacksonville Skyline" and the Stones-y swagger of "Crazy About You" to the Beatles-pop of "Mirror, Mirror" and the bizarre, indulgent castanets and strings of "Paper Moon." Adams's duets with Cary always resulted in Whiskeytown's finest material, truly evoking the Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris comparisons that often came the band's way. Pneumonia doesn't disappoint there, either. "Easy Hearts," a signature lament on love, beautifully blends the duo's sorrowful voices with the aching accompaniment of Cary's fiddle. Its redemptive sadness captures everything that set Whiskeytown apart, reminding fans that while its individual members will play on, the end of the collaboration means something has been irrevocably lost. Which leads to what will perhaps be the final Whiskeytown comparison: Like Parsons, Whiskeytown was underappreciated in its time and departed prematurely. Thankfully, Pneumonia is an elegy worthy of that lineage.

 
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