Ryan Adams has been a busy guy. The dreamy-eyed North Caroliner has put out five albums in the last three years, garnering him more than the average amount of press for his excesses…especially since his excesses involve heroin and cocaine. Now you might think that five albums is a lot for that span of time, but speedballs ain’t called speedballs for nothing, and the same obstructions to productivity that the Average Joe on the street might face don’t mean jack to Mr. Adams.
Though recorded with his backing band the Cardinals, Easy Tiger is billed as a Ryan Adams solo effort, and for the most part it sounds like your typical underwhelming singer-songwriter affair. The sun comes up and down, people change and don’t change, people are young and then old, and then we all die: this is the spectrum Easy Tiger tackles. The songs skip genres a bit (country on “Tears of Gold” to bluegrass of “Pearls on a String”) but box themselves in structurally, with every song except one clocking in or before the three minute mark. They are short, but not as in “cut to the chase short”, but more like “path of least resistance short”; the songs are like the guy in the cube next to you who takes twenty minute bathroom breaks, google-chats incessantly, takes a 2X lunch and leaves work thirty minutes early.
If Ryan Adams were a lesser songwriter, Easy Tiger would be just fine. You would smile and pat it on the back and be on with your day. But Ryan Adams isn’t a lesser songwriter. On one track in particular, “Rip Off”, he shows it, and he shows it well. With a voice sounding more comfortable than anywhere else on the record, his phrasing is inventive and brilliant; the pre-chorus delivers so successfully that he forgoes the melodic chorus altogether. Or on the closing track, which uses a lonely-hearted harmonica to frame Adams’ second best display of melody and mood. Just try to stop humming the chorus after the disc stops: you will fail.
The problem with Easy Tiger is that the uninspired moments outweigh the inspired ones by a large percentage. “Everybody Knows” would have been a popular Natalie Merchant song ten years ago. “The Sun Also Sets” could have been one of the weaker tracks on Dave Matthews’ solo record. And so on. Too often layers of sound are used to bail out lazy song progressions, showcasing the fact that you can’t make a chorus epic by adding choir vocals and three more guitars (or can you?). And I’m not sure what’s going with “Halloweenhead”, but over a ridiculous power-chord progression, Adams explains the crux of the situation: he’s “got a Halloween head”. And you can definitely believe him: there is a picture in the jacket of his ‘Halloween head’ to prove it. I’m just not sure why anyone should know about it. Or why he suddenly needs to announce his guitar solos.
If selling more albums was his goal, then mission accomplished. Though unchallenging to the few, these songs are destined to be winners with the masses; the sound on Easy Tiger can best be described as “Starbucks sound”. The songs don’t strive for much, and they do it well, marching on towards their three minute resolutions. Genres are hopped, slide guitars are slid, little melodies are punched out on pianos, and if you hang back and focus on something else (a new to-go mug, perhaps?), you could almost hear enough pleasantries to make it your album of the year. But pay close attention to “Rip Off”, and if it doesn’t make you want Easy Tiger to be better, then I urge you to draw as much satisfaction from that frappucino as you possibly can. And to go with the 16 oz shiny blue cylindrical mug.