By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
"Meet Me Where I Am," the first song on Ryan Paul Plewacki's debut album, paints a harrowing portrait of a young man in trouble: alone on the streets, meandering in a county library, too tired to move, and struggling with addiction. The details make the song ring true for a simple reason—Plewacki lived the song before he wrote it.
"Most of the songs on my first record were composed as I was going through the early stages of recovery," explains Plewacki of the tunes that make up 2009's La Vita Nuova, released with his backing band under the name Ryan Paul & the Ardent. "It's inevitable when you're in that position to take stock of everything, think about all the bridges you burned. I found myself at the end of treatment [for alcohol and drug addiction] just standing over a crumbling mess and wondering what to do next. Those feelings all made their way into the first record. I'm three years removed from that now but it's still obviously a huge part of my life."
With a reedy conversational singing voice that recalls Television's Tom Verlaine, a degree in working-man's rock riffs from the Drive By Truckers school, and hard-won wisdom to spare, Plewacki and his band are rapidly rising on the local roots-rock scene. The ascent should only hasten with this week's release of a new rough-and-tumble digital EP, the Cute Souvenir Sessions. While its predecessor was painstakingly assembled over an eight-month period, Cute Souvenir's four tracks came together fast and furious by necessity.
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"The bottom line was I only had $500 at the time to record something and really wanted a document of the band that felt truer than La Vita Nuova," explains Plewacki. "Eventually we linked up with Matt Patrick of Greycoats, who runs the Library recording studio, and he was excited about working with us but also said he would hold us firm to the $500 limit, which was important. We ended up tracking and mixing the entire thing in one 10-hour day."
While it's a dubious critical endeavor to make too much of a hastily assembled mini-album that clocks in at under 20 minutes, Cute Souvenirs nonetheless shows Ryan Paul & the Ardent as a band rapidly outgrowing the alt-country label slapped on their debut. While they've clearly still got loping balladry on lockdown, as evidenced by EP opener "All Along," they also make compelling stabs at Summerteeth-ish pop (the synthesizer-buoyed "Chelsea") and group-harmony-heavy campfire sing-alongs (closing track "Another Time"). Not bad for a day's work. The glue holding it all together is Plewacki's voice, perhaps an acquired taste, but one that ultimately helps to make his music stand out in a field of often indistinguishable twang affectations.
"I always wonder how many people on the planet told Tom Waits not to sing when he was starting out," jokes Plewacki. "Back in my college days I was always the one who got to do the covers that lent themselves to bad vocals. I sang 'Up on Cripple Creek' a lot. Being a singer was never anything I envisioned for myself back when I was playing guitar in other bands. Once these songs came out of me, though, I knew I would have to be the one to sing them. The songs are flawed, the stories are flawed, and only my flawed voice really makes sense singing them."
With work already underway on a sophomore full-length that looks to split the difference between his highly refined debut and minimalist warts-and-all EP ("I'd like a little more than 10 hours this time," he says), Plewacki is clearly energized by what lies ahead and is at peace with his turbulent past.
"For me, by the time I hit my early twenties all I really cared about was the drugs and booze and craziness in hotel rooms that came with playing music," recalls Plewacki, now 29, reflecting on the time he spent in the early 2000s playing guitar with jam bands like Big Wu offshoot God Johnson. "I had no passion for the music itself. When I was in early recovery I thought I was completely done with making music. Gradually, I ended up falling back in love with it. Now I feel like I have the same passion for music in my heart that I had as a teenager. I'm back to going to as many shows as possible, running up to the stage to check out people's pedals with my mouth agape—just generally acting like a giddy school girl whenever I'm around music. I feel like that same teenager all over again—admittedly with a little less hair on my head—and it feels great."
RYAN PAUL & THE ARDENT play an all-ages CD-release show with Zoo Animal on THURSDAY, JULY 1, at the BRYANT-LAKE BOWL; 612.825.8949.