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(Columbia 97606 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/30/2012)
There seems to be unfortunate tendency in the pop music business that the more successful an artist becomes, the less interesting or innovative the music on subsequent recordings. There is perhaps the idea of giving the fans what they expect, and no doubt business pressure from record labels not to mess with a successful formula. But this is not a universal rule. Some of the most successful and durable artists have defied expectations during their career and for better or worse, creating recordings that mark an artistic departure, though that usually does not happen until the artist is successful enough that anything he or she puts out is guaranteed a degree of commercial success.
This week, we have a new recording by someone who has been a successful pop star -- including being the subject of the tabloid media -- who has taken an interesting turn and in the process made one of his best albums of his career. John Mayer has just released his fifth formal studio album under his own name called Born and Raised.
The 34-year-old Connecticut native has always had a fairly wide range of musical interests. He became a lifelong blues fan, at a young age after a friend gave him a cassette of Stevie Ray Vaughan. He eventually studied at the Berklee College of Music, then moved to Atlanta to form a band there. He began to attract attention after releasing an independent album in 2001. It came to the attention of Columbia Records, which re-released it. The CD, Room for Squares spawned some hit songs such as Your Body Is a Wonderland. He won a Grammy award for best male pop vocal performance. Though his were the kind of pop songs that could generate commercial success, there was also a bit of the musical sophistication and hints of jazziness from Mayer's background.
While Mayer did the expected and followed up with some similar songs on his next album, he also was interested in pursuing other musical directions, working with hip-hop performers at one point, and in 2005 began working with blues artists such as Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and B.B. King in performance. He also formed The John Mayer Trio to highlight the blues aspect. His regular solo recordings continued the singer-songwriter pop adding in some of the blues influence, and he continued to enjoy commercial success. His last studio album, Battle Studies debuted at Number One on the Billboard charts in 2009.
He was also turning up in the commercial show-biz media for his relationships with tabloid figures Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson, and in 2010 Mayer gave a controversial interview that was considered racist or misogynist, for which he apologized but soon retreated to a low profile, after getting a lot of criticism. In the meantime, Mayer was diagnosed with a granuloma, a kind of scar growth in his throat near his vocal chords which required surgical treatment and a long recovery. Then its return put the kibosh on a planned tour for the new album, whose release was delayed by several months.
But now Born and Raised is out and ignoring all the distractions and show-biz trappings, it turns out to be both another interesting change in musical direction, and a first-rate record. This time, Mayer has gone roots-rock, with the songs getting a mostly acoustic, but very tasteful, folky accompaniment with the easy-going rock groove that marks the best of the roots-rock singer-songwriters. There are some bits of steel guitar and hints of country twang as well. The songwriting is top-notch, and the Mayer's vocals are just right for the style. Accounts I have read said that he had recorded most of the vocals on this CD before his throat surgery, but he has dialed back on the his sometimes pretentious attempts at gruffness or a bluesy quality. So the whole album has a great, honest quality. There are a couple of songs that might well appeal to the pop audiences that liked his previous hits, but for the most part, Mayer comes across as a literate, roots-oriented folkie on Born and Raised.
He is joined by a small regular band, whose most prominent member is keyboard man Chuck Leavell, formerly of the Allman Brothers Band and an associate for a quarter century of the Rolling Stones, and whose own album we reviewed last week. Mayer himself is no slouch on guitar, and he also played some folksinger-type harmonica. Aaron Sterling is on drums and Sean Hurley is on bass. Guests include ubiquitous studio steel guitar man Greg Leisz, plus Graham Nash and David Crosby on some backing vocals.
The CD opens with a song that nicely epitomizes the direction Mayer takes on Born and Raised. Queen of California is a nicely-written and tastefully performed song with the folky roots rock sound, including Greg Leisz on the steel guitar. <<>>
The Age of Worry is one of the more interesting tracks on the CD. The lyrics of this waltz are basically a call for optimism when things are not going so well. <<>>
A song called Speak for Me has lyrics that seem semi-autobiographical. Musically it runs toward the folky side of the CD's range, and again, it's nicely done. <<>>
David Crosby and Graham Nash appear on the first of two versions of the title song Born and Raised. Crosby and Nash are right at home stylistically with the retro, country-tinged folk-rock sound. <<>>
Memphis soul has always been one of Mayer's influences, and despite the folky direction of the rest of the album, the song Something Like Olivia weaves in some of that soul sound. Making an appearance on drums is Jim Keltner, who was a part of many rock and pop albums going back to the late 1960s. <<>>
Another of the more interesting pieces lyrically is If I Ever Get Around to Living, which blends the folky texture with some hints of other influences. It's a kind of reminiscence of an earlier life. <<>>
Perhaps the most unconventional song on the album in terms of its lyrics is Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967, about a man who built a home-made submarine and crossed the Pacific. <<>>
Toward the end of the album is a song that fans of Mayer's earlier hit material might better relate to. A Face to Call Home keeps the generally understated instrumentation of the rest of the album, but it's more a typical John Mayer pop song. <<>>
The CD ends with a reprise of the title piece Born and Raised in which Mayer and company go all-out for the retro roots rock sound. <<>>
John Mayer's new CD Born and Raised marks a pleasant stylistic departure from the sound of his previous hits. Mayer is a versatile artist with a wide range of musical interests, which he has shown though his collaborations with others and side projects. On Born and Raised he goes roots-rock and does it very nicely, with a good collection of songs, and a very tasteful band. His vocals are also quite appealing for the style.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The recording, made mostly at the legendary Electric Ladyland studios in New York, has a clean, understated sound that is appropriate for the music. The dynamic range is actually better than average for this kind of pop album, with the drums having a nice punchy sound.
Pop stars, especially the ones known to those who get their news from the tabloid media, may encounter some resistance to changing musical stripes. But John Mayer has done just that, and in the process made a CD that is one of the highlights of his career.
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