Do you really need three versions of “Houses on the Hill”? You bet. “Houses on the Hill” remains one of Whiskeytown’s most striking vignettes. Caitlin Cary’s lyrics foreshadow her stellar post-Whiskeytown work, and the song’s delicately layered county-folk-rock pulse captures the lyrics’ fragile heart. But, on record, it’s also one of the band’s more tightly controlled efforts. The live version included here, recorded at KCRW in September 1997, opens the attic door and lets in a little air as the song ends with a crackling minute-and-a-half instrumental coda. The early version on Disc 2, violin-less and banjo-less, showcases Ryan Adams’ vocals, proving that when he shakes the bangs out of his eyes and sings into the spotlight, his is one of the most captivating voices ever to emerge from North CarolinaJackson Browne from Jacksonville, if you will.
That live version of “Houses on the Hill” is one of five songs from the KCRW performance that follows the original Strangers Almanac on the first disc. The short set opens the door for a festival of early and acoustic versions, first-timers and covers, all circa Strangers, that comprises the second disc. All but two of the 21 tracks make their CD debut here. The acoustic takes, most notably “16 Days” and “Avenues,” let the melodies and, again, Adams’ vocals sparkle. The newly unearthed are led by “10 Seconds” (which plays like an alt-country-rock “I Wanna Be Sedated”) and the lovely pure-country duet “My Heart Is Broken.”
As for the covers, Adams’ solo take on Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” seems to find him a bit tentative about scaling such a monument, but it’s a dose of humility that serves the song well. Similar uncertainty surfaces on “Dreams.” It’s as if the decision to treat the Fleetwood Mac song with reverence or to rough it up wasn’t made. The roots-rock of the True Believers’ “The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over” is all sweet-spot, and the band predictably seems most comfortable getting their Gram on with “Luxury Liner.”
“I was living in the city with a girl that was pretty and was fine/ Had a rock ‘n’ roll band and a guitar stand and a line,” Adams sings on ace country-rocker “Kiss & Make-Up.” Making its debut here, it comes off as perhaps the best distillation of Adams’ and Whiskeytown’s many inspirations, a nostalgia-dripping moment from a band that hadn’t been around long enough to develop such a knack for looking back. Of course, “Houses on the Hill” looks back even further, and you could say that same desire to dig through memories and crawlspaces for artifacts drives this deluxe edition.
Is it worth the trip back? Again, you bet