It remains a matter of debate if Raleigh's Whiskeytown were ever ready to sign to Major label Outpost (backed by Geffen) in 1996. The bands plug in and play attitude to live shows had either been great or a let down depending on any given night, and although the bands first album "Faithless Street" had shown a promise of greater things, it also demonstrated they were far from the finished article. One thing was clear however, the precocous talent that was the bands singer and principal songwriter Ryan Adams could not be ignored. With a songwriting talent to match his attitude, it was very clear this guy was going to be a star with, or indeed without, Whiskeytown.
With the working title "Sorry I Said Goodbye" the band entered Woodland studios Nashville with producer Jim Scott with the knowledge that all but two ("16 Days" and "Yesterday's News") of the nineteen tracks recorded with ex DB's Chris Stamey just a few months after "Faithless Street" had been rejected outright by the new label. The band and particulary Adams had not taken this news well at all. Things started to get from bad to worse when Scott's desire to use ultra modern recording clashed with Adam's peferred spontaneity of recording live, unsurprisingly he quickly became disillusioned with the whole project. As Adam's later pointed out in a future interview - the recording of Strangers Almanac killed the band.
This album, therefore, has no real right to be as good as it is. Yes, it's overproduced and definately lacks the charm of "Faithless Street", but the songs really are fantastic. "Inn Town", "Somebody Remembers The Rose", and "Avenues" are lovely, crafted acoustic numbers. "16 Days" and "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" (featuring ex Rank And File's Alejandro Escovedo) are both great catchy commercial country rock songs in the style of Steve Earle/Eagles. The albums faster songs show a healthy respect for American alt rock scene and, I suspect, the bands own heroes; the slightly Buffalo Tom sounding "Waiting To Derail" and "Yesterday's News" (cheekly stolen from the Replacements "Nowhere Is My Home") are both excellent and probably a good indication of the band's live sound. The Soulful "Everything I Do" and "Dancing With The Women At The Bar" show the first hint of Ryans future solo "Gold" direction. But it's the extrordinary "Houses On The Hill" where Ryan's vocal and songwriting talent really hits pay dirt. A wonderful story of lost love co-written by band Violin player/singer Caitlin Cary, the song is as good as anything he's ever recorded. The album does have weaker moments, "Turn around" is a poor pasiche of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" (a studio demo of which is included on the bonus CD of outtakes) and both "Losering" and "Not Home Anymore" are a little too self conscious for their own good, but these are very minor grumbles. Overall "Strangers Almanac" is a fine album.
Whiskeytown were a talented, exciting country/rock band who in retrospect probably needed more time to develop as songwriters. The legacy of "Strangers Alamanac" is however still one they must be immensely proud of. Five stars*
* A Quick mention about the deluxe edition - It includes an extra CD demo's, B-Sides and Live recordings which is great addition to the overall album and really worth a review in it's own right.