Ryan Adams Easy Tiger

[Lost Highway; 2007]

Styles: country-fried, whiskey-battered, downtrodden, soul squelches
Others: Wilco, Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Whiskeytown

At this point in the game, ‘prolific’ would be too slight a word. Ryan Adams has continually been more content to crank out a greater product-per-fiscal-quarter ratio than most folks have this side of Merzbow. Easy Tiger is Adams’ ninth official studio album, and its release puts to bed a relatively long hiatus separating it from 2005’s triple onslaught of Cold Roses/Jacksonville City Nights/29. Adams certainly hasn’t been silent in the intervening year-and-a-half (his website’s Cardinal Radio feature supplied an ample array of about a dozen unreleased albums from projects we’ll probably never hear from again, covering ground from hip-hop to garage rock), but it’s safe to assume our favorite troubadour put a little bit of thought into this one.

And it shows: Easy Tiger is Adams’ most calculated and effortless album since his debut. It’s a breeze. The restraint shown over the album’s slim runtime is almost unthinkable, considering what’s come before and the man whose name is adorning the sleeve. Each track is handpicked and groomed to flaunt all the best characteristics of Adams’ talents, leaving us with all the highs and almost none of the lows. If anything, the record is almost too eager to please, with the only regretful loss being Adams and The Cardinals’ brash and reckless desire to throw everything to the wind and see what sticks.

So, this is the oft-rumored Star Wars album, but the only way you can tell is by the font on the front cover jacket. What was supposed to be a tour-de-Force for The Cardinals’ endless reserve of inner-band cohesion and jamming evolved somewhere along the process into an entirely different entity, with Adams taking the spotlight as sole creative dynamo. So much of the spotlight, in fact, that The Cardinals aren’t even credited outwardly this time around. Not to be fooled, the bird boys are still there providing the support that Adams’ songs deserve. But it’s all backseat driving, as the focus is on songwriting instead of instrumental artistry.

Adams and the band get it right straight out from the gates, hitting many nails on all their shiny heads with the punch of “Goodnight Rose.” Chortling guitars send up the rousing ballad, with its strong melody and memorable refrain. “Halloweenhead” plays it a little too straight, in spite of its inane mumbling over superstitions (“Dear Diary” from the War And Peace sessions bowls a similar game while blowing a serious raspberry at both critics and himself). Regardless, it’s the most true-to-form rocker in the bunch and stomps with the best of them. Adams provides an unhinged vocal performance in “The Sun Also Sets,” and it isn’t hammy in the least, standing tall alongside the ear-bending notes he hits in previous cuts like “Political Scientist” and “The Hardest Part.” “Pearls on a String” is as backwoods and jugband as Adams has yet pulled off. As fine as it is, it finds trouble when trying to connect up with the subtler tunes around it. Then there’s the single “Two,” which carries the distinction of being his most radio-friendly song in a great deal of time and the most efficient use of a duet with Sheryl Crow this decade (which is, to say, a nearly inaudible duet).

Uniformity is key this time around. These songs fit together, yet they’re all strong enough in their own right. The understated production melds it together with a polished sheen. And for once, we’re presented with a work that is distinctly Ryan Adams. The pieces of the same old puzzle he’s always been building are still there, but on this occasion, his wandering voice sticks close to his chest. The album is a success story of slate-cleaning and spit-shining. This is the place where disillusioned Adams fans pick the torch back up and start the race over. The record doesn’t take its time to mosey around an idea; it cuts clean and straight to the always-bittersweet point. Along with being a constant enjoyment, it adds a few classic tracks to the catalog, with the likes of “Everybody Knows,” “These Girls,” and the aforementioned “Two.” Easy Tiger's not his best, but it’s got focus and a lot of heart. And this is something to respect, love him or hate him, as Adams is finally coming into his own.

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