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EASY TIGER • Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams exasperates and exhilarates in roughly equal measures. The guy can torch the house or noodle you numb, but even when his well-oiled songwriting machinery is running on obsessive internal drive rather than true inspiration, the results are rarely boring. Let's face it, when a new Ryan Adams record hits the street you make a point of checking it out. Every time. End of story. And even when the pickings are on the slim side, there's always a sweet payoff somewhere along the line.

On Easy Tiger, his 9th solo studio collection, the dividends are many and, as is usually the case with the mercurial Adams, all over the proverbial map.

Right from the get-go he pulls a blazing new iron out of the fire with "Goodnight Rose," a loping, majestic classic-rocker quite unlike anything the native North Carolinian has ever recorded. Later, Adams revisits similarly spacious, free-spirited territory on "Rip Off." (It's no accident that Adams is pictured in the CD booklet chillin' with former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh.)

It's solid testament to Adams' vaunted versatility that the album's other most instantly memorable tracks are "Halloweenhead," a tough, glam-with-claws rouser, "Pearls on a String," a gentle slice of relaxed Appalachian twang, and "Two Hearts," a sweet-spot line drive out of the park that ranks with his most accessible folk-rock gems.

Elsewhere, he circles back to smoothly burnished, Gold-style roots-pop on "Two" (with guest backup vocals by Sheryl Crow) and "Everybody Knows." In another self-referential turn, echoes of the songwriter's formative Whiskeytown period ring through loud and clear on "Tears of Gold," a wistful, pedal-steel sweetened alt-country waltz. 

As always, and to his enduring credit in a bidness rife with youthful arrogance, Adams isn't coy about incorporating his influences. John Lennon's piano-ballad aura wafts over "The Sun Also Sets," and fellow mentor Neil Young (in acoustic mode) casts a long shadow across "These Girls" and "I Taught Myself How To Grow Old." 

As certain nitpicky grumps (and I've been one of 'em) have suggested in the past, is it possible that Adams' prodigious output could be boiled down to brass tacks for the greater good of civilization? Well, probably so. But a gloriously checkered catalog is apparently the price we pay for having such a restless force of creative nature in our midst. I'll take that deal every time. Besides, Easy Tiger sets a new standard of maturity and consistency for a cat who just might change course and blow the whole thing sky high next time out. Hey, that's what makes him so interesting. • Mike Thomas

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