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A kinder, gentler Ryan Adams?

The singer ditches the belligerence and the drugs. But the inspired rock 'n' roll remains, in clear focus.

July 21, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Ryan Adams and his band the Cardinals were recording some songs this week for KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" when he came up with an impromptu theme song for the public radio station's flagship music program.

As the singer guided the musicians through folk, honky-tonk and bluegrass versions of the jingle, "Morning" producer Ariana Morgenstern was getting nervous. She needed 15 more minutes of music for the segment, and their time at Village Recorders in West Los Angeles was running short.

"We're just warming up so we can get to the tune," said Adams, sitting on a stool, an acoustic guitar in hand. "I know that you want to get more tunes, but either way we would right now be just jamming, just enough so 'Down in a Hole' will sound right."

A couple of years ago, Morgenstern (who ultimately got her half-hour, with five minutes to spare) might have received a less civil response from Adams, whose early promise as a brilliant and prolific singer-songwriter in the alternative country genre had been eclipsed by his increasingly belligerent and erratic drug-fueled behavior.

His maverick ways extended to his torrential musical output, which culminated in the release of three albums during 2005 alone. Saturated fans and frustrated executives at the Universal-owned Lost Highway label agreed: If only he'd exert some discipline, select the best and shelve the rest, maybe he'd come up with the masterpiece that everyone's been waiting for since he swaggered onto the scene in 2000.

Well, Adams might have arrived there with his new album, "Easy Tiger." It's been an uncharacteristically long year and a half since his last one, and he isn't drinking or drugging anymore, but don't get the idea that he's bought into the argument.

"Those people are lazy," Adams said, in the recording studio with his five bandmates for the KCRW gig Wednesday. "In a world of absolute and total ... insanity, there's plenty of room for a guy that likes to sit around and make [stuff] up on guitar.

"I feel like no matter what anybody sees in my past work, I still say that I side with the creative energy of the world and I feel pretty safe being on that team, because that team doesn't tear things down.... People need dreams, you know."

"I haven't seen a dramatic change creatively," said Neal Casal, a Los Angeles singer and guitarist who joined the Cardinals in late 2005 as part of a major revamping of the lineup.

"As far as the songs and the music and the passion for it and the rushes of inspiration and how frenetic and cool it can be, that hasn't changed at all.... It's just as rock 'n' roll as it ever was, and the edge is still there.... If anything, there's more ideas now."

Since its release last month, "Easy Tiger" has collected a pile of "return to form" and "promise fulfilled" reviews, with comparisons to such benchmarks as Neil Young's "Harvest." The album is compact, at under 40 minutes, and its burnished, vulnerable balladry yields both a proportioned elegance and a deep soulfulness.

During his sold-out concert at the Wilshire Theatre on Thursday, there were no tantrums or digressions, no ego stroking. Adams hung back in the heavily shadowed company of his band, adding his strikingly focused, emotional vocals to the Cardinals' muted instrumental frameworks

But the North Carolina-born, New York-based Adams, 32, said that "Easy Tiger" wasn't intended as a response to the criticism or as a major, career-saving statement.

"I just wanted to make a record. I get around a studio and I get pervy. The fact that we're in one right now literally makes me want to make a record today and be done like tomorrow. I'm hungry for that kind of experience. I just love all the lights and buttons on the console, and I like the way people communicate in the studio because its so hyper-creative. It's a very romantic way to think...."

And what does Adams think when he looks back on his years of excess from his 2007 vantage?

"That I was an earnest, passionate son of a bitch, and that I believed in my art so much and was so reactionary and knew no bounds about it that I think I thought that this is art, so if it isn't going off right, why have the facade up? Just say it isn't working....

"And I had nothing to lose. I came from nothing, so I just acted like a ... redneck for 10 years. But you grow up, and that doesn't work for me now. At some point my perspective changed, and no matter what kind of bad day I'm having it's not going to help anybody else if I fuel that and make their day worse too. It's better to try to peace out."

richard.cromelin@latimes.com

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