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Music Review: Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger

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Whatever Ryan Adams' stylistic whim over the past seven years — alt-country, AOR, country, dour Brit pop, folk, garage rock — nearly every album held two things in common: more than a few staggeringly brilliant songs that would make any songwriter envious (Rock'n'Roll and 29 being the exceptions) and a few certifiable duds that would leave you scratching your head, wondering why someone with Adams' remarkable talent would include such lousy material on an album.  His inability to match his quality control to his songwriting fecundity — not to mention his notorious antics — led plenty of critics and listeners to carp he valued self-mythologizing over honing his craft.

Easy Tiger, Adams' first release in over a year (an epic drought by his standards) is his most balanced work to date, offering some arresting moments without the weight of a lot of filler.  Backed by the latest lineup of The Cardinals (they're not billed on the album cover), Adams concentrates on straightforward, acoustic-based songs and various flavors of country.  "Halloweenhead," the album's lone musical departure, boasts a catchy melody and offers some self-deprecating humor, but the near Spinal Tap homage, replete with bells, storm noises, and the shout of "Guitar solo!," sounds decidedly out of place.  The sunny bluegrass number "Pearls on a String" fares much better, providing a fun, top-tapping tune while retaining the instrumental textures common to the album.

The album opens with "Goodnight Rose," a staggered, twangy rocker reminiscent of Cold Roses but downshifts into a subdued, melancholy tone with the first single, "Two."  Complimented by Sheryl Crow's harmonies, Adams' ache-tinged tenor buoys even the most pedestrian of lines: "'Cause it's cold in here/And I wish it was hot/The sink's broke, it's leaking from the faucet."    

Not surprisingly, Adams' trademark elegiac tales of broken relationships, crushed ambition, and transient youth permeate the album.  He fails, though, when he tries too emphatically to convey heartbreak.  With a tinny acoustic guitar doubling the vocal melody, "Off Broadway," a reworked tune originally recorded during the Suicide Handbook sessions, suffers from an insipid and painfully repetitive chorus as Adams loses his way home after spotting an ex-lover: "I don't know where that is anymore/I don't know where that is anymore/I don't know where that is anymore/Used to be off Broadway."  Someone help the man home already!  And, on "The Sun Also Sets," he mars an otherwise solid song with a strained, overwrought vocal delivery, which culminates with him channeling what sounds like the voice of Grover right before the final chorus.

More often, however, Adams strikes the right balance of sadness and subtlety.  On the breezy "Two Hearts" he foresees the inevitable collapse of a relationship ("Two hearts/One of them will break/Like bad ideas on a beautiful day/Two figures moving through the dark/ Three words is all it takes to break your heart in two") while on the  beautiful "Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.," he wearily surrenders to listlessness: "But the light of the moon leads the way/Towards the morning, and the sun/The sun's well on it's way too soon/But oh, oh my God, whatever, etc."  

That sort of self-reflection lies at the heart of quite a few tracks.  To be sure, there are some "young girl did me bad" moments, but they're tempered by Adams' acknowledgment of his own failings, whether he's admitting the difficulty of commitment — "I make these promises/But all these promises hurt/It's like they never get a lift off" ("Rip Off") — or confessing his weakness for anxious "late night girls" on "These Girls" — "It's so sad but when they smile/God, I've been had" — arriving at the conclusion that "These girls are better off in my head."

Easy Tiger shows Ryan Adams can be mature, accessible, and compelling all at once, but one could quip the tiger sounds a bit too tame at times.  With the album's heavy dose of balladry, there are few traces of his customary rollicking swagger. Maybe next time around he'll manage to infuse a bit more endearing brashness into his maturing sound — chances are we won't have to wait long to find out. Still, even with the mellow vibe, Adams' songs remain engaging — a few rank with the best in his extensive catalog — and not having to lunge for the skip button half a dozen times while listening to the album is a welcome change.

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About Jason Middlekauff

  • Colin

    Well there is a reason ‘personal attacks are not allowed.” But really, someone should listen to all of the albums, starting from Whikseytown.. and then come up with your own conclusion on this artist/musician.

  • Jason

    “Well there is a reason ‘personal attacks are not allowed.'” Colin, why don’t you articulate your opinion with some specificity? Are you suggesting I haven’t listened to all of Adams’ albums starting with Whiskeytown? I have, and I enjoy them all with the exception of 29 and most of Rock’n’Roll. And, though your comment is rather ambiguous, I’m assuming your opinion of his latest album differs from mine–I’m guessing you find it weak compared to some of his previous albums. That’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinion as I am to mine. I don’t think Easy Tiger is his best album, just his most consistent. Whiskeytown aside, even on his most-lauded albums–Heartbreaker and Gold–he could’ve honed the track listing from 15 and 16 respectively to somewhere around 11 or 12, cutting out some duds along the way.