Ryan Adams by Rossiter Drake

With the release of Easy Tiger, critics are eager to celebrate the return of Ryan Adams, alt-country savior. The truth, though, is that aside from self-indulgent missteps — Demolition, anyone? — the former Whiskeytown frontman never left. Sure, he took a well-deserved breather last year after releasing three studio efforts in 2005 (among them, the impossibly delicate 29), but rarely since the heyday of Bob Dylan has an artist been pulled in so many different directions by his fans. Some pine for a hefty helping of down-home country. Others prefer Adams the precious balladeer. And then there are the ones still demanding the more aggressive, Gold-era rock 'n' roll inspired by the 32-year-old's punk roots. A single album hardly ever satisfies all three camps.

Easy Tiger, Adams' most concise effort since 2000's Heartbreaker, might just do the trick. Reteamed with the Cardinals, his longtime backup band, he is once again crafting fat-free country-rock anthems, and the result is his most well-rounded, commercially viable record in years. From the blistering, riff-driven strains of "Goodnight Rose" to the melancholic refrains of "I Taught Myself How to Grow Old" — a down-tempo confessional that resonates with all the understated passion of Harvest-era Neil Young — Adams seems intent on technical perfection. His irrepressible melodies are perfectly suited to his tender tenor, and the casual hooks are immediately inviting; if the whole affair seems a bit too polished, that's no accident. Though Easy Tiger may lack the raw, spontaneous feel of 29 and Jacksonville City Nights, it is the versatile and supremely disciplined album many Ryan Adams fans have been waiting for since his Whiskeytown days. Rossiter Drake

 
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