John Mayer’s evolution has followed a crooked path.
Mayer first emerged as a pop musician with a Dave Matthews-like mumble in the vocal department and a penchant for widescreen hooks and arena-friendly choruses. It soon became apparent that Mayer wanted it known how much he loved the blues, how closely he had studied Stevie Ray Vaughan and his forebears in Texas blues, and how strong a guitarist he was. So Mayer would show up jamming with Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, taking readily apparent delight in the fact that he could hold his own next to such icons. Mayer was a bluesman, then. And yet, his recordings didn’t really reflect this fact, instead luxuriating in a blend of R&B, pop, folk and rock that was simultaneously high quality and completely innocuous. In concert, Mayer tended to split the difference between straight, swooning pop songs and vehicles for his considerable guitar skills, as if his desire was to have it both ways.
None of this to-ing and fro-ing has damaged Mayer’s career, nor put a dent in his popularity. However, these tendencies made Mayer easy to like, but difficult to love. He seems, even today, unsure of who he wants to be, at least from he outsider’s perspective.
So now we have an album representing the full blossoming of the incarnation Mayer has been moving toward for the past several years. “Paradise Valley” is Mayer’s bid for the territory Jackson Browne claimed with “Late for the Sky,” or perhaps more accurately, the ground Crosby Stills & Nash covered with “Daylight Again” and “CSN.” It’s affable folk-based rock music with an easygoing air, a low-key virtuosity in the instrumental department and a consistently mellow vibe in terms of vocal inflection.
“Paradise Valley” was produced by longtime Rolling Stones compatriot Don Was and features the contributions of Stones touring band members Chuck Leavell, Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler, but if you’re looking for the sloppy, rough-but-right rock ’n’ roll of the Stones, you shouldn’t look here. Was’ production is nice, warm, round and full, but it serves the songs, and these songs assert their place in the background, not the foreground.
Things start in a promising vein with “Wildfire,” which features a Mayer guitar solo redolent of Jerry Garcia’s auto-wah work with the Grateful Dead. A welcoming introduction to Mayer’s current state of mind, then – he’s recently recovered from a pair of throat surgeries, is living on remote plot of land in Montana and is apparently happy to have his love live no longer a point of fascination for the tabloids. Which may explain why he was comfortable enough to invite old flame Katy Perry to duet on the moving, autobiographical “Who You Love.” (Perry sounds good in this stripped-back, rustic sonic environment.) Mayer also seeks to right wrongs visited upon him by Taylor Swift via her tune “Dear John,” with “Paper Doll.” (“You’re like 22 girls in one/and none of them know what they’re running from,” Mayer sings. Ouch.)
There’s not much fire in “Paradise Valley,” but Mayer does turn up the heat a bit on a tasty cover of J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze,” and Frank Ocean’s vocal on the mid-album reprise of opener “Wildfire” offers a welcome change in tonality.
Mayer does sound relaxed and at ease here, and thus, “Paradise Valley” sounds tailor-made for a nice sunny Sunday morning listening session. It’s a coming-down collection of lovely but somewhat forgettable tunes.
– Jeff Miers
Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions
[Sinning Saint LTD]
Everyone knows Will Lee. If you watch David Letterman, you do. Even those who weren’t buying CTI records in the 1970s (when he played with everyone from George Benson to Art Farmer to Yusef Lateef), or watching the very first edition of Paul Shaffer’s band for Letterman, know him now as the Letterman band’s original bass player and wise guy in chief, the one who always lets out a bloodcurdling scream every time Shaffer plays the first nine notes of Bach’ Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor to signify the foul and Gothic doings in Dick Cheney’s cellar.
Here, a month away from his 61st birthday, is a giddily eclectic Lee disc that will offer you forever the quality of friends that a professional studio whiz can pick up in the music biz – his Letterman show leader Shaffer as the organist on “Gratitude” (with guitarist Leni Stern); ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and the great New Orleans piano master Allen Toussaint on “Get Out of My Life Woman”; the late Divinyls singer Chrissy Amphlett having the last word on “Miss Understanding”; Bob James and Narada Michael Walden on “Papanet’s Ride”; Chuck Loeb on “Fooled Him” and “Smile”; Akiko Yano on “1,2,3”; Peter Erskine on “Simple Way to Say ‘I Love You’ ”; Steve Gadd on “Fooled Him”; and Lee and Horace Silver’s “Natives” (where Gadd does a mega-funk drum solo).
The pure instrumentals are pretty well played. But it’s Lee the wiseacre lyricist who’s most impressive – full of recovery movement equanimity on “Gratitude,” and on “Miss Understanding” writing that “God’s little joke stormed in from the rain/ demanding some help with her baggage. … She opened her bags and unpacked them/She carried:/old issues and a trunk full of pain/one suitcase was loaded with shame/one carry-on was carrying hurt, and the smallest compartment held hope.”
The disc is dedicated to his old friend, guitarist Hiram Bullock, whose excess musicianly independence got him let go from Shaffer’s Letterman show band and who died, after brutal throat cancer, of a drug overdose in 2008.
Bullock, Lee said in the disc notes, “is always reminding me of what it is I do when I go on stage – entertain.”
On the best of this, that’s what he does, considerably.
– Jeff Simon
The Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist
Out: Nuns on the Bus. In: Rosaries and long habits. A disc earlier this year by the very traditional – and very young – Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles went to the top of the classical charts. Now, the spotlight shoots to the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist. This community of 110 sisters in Ann Arbor, Mich., has more novices than it knows what to do with and is building a second monastery in Texas. The sisters have appeared on “Oprah” and on NPR. Their average age is 27.
“Mater Eucharistiae” features 13 tracks ranging from luminous Gregorian chant (Salve Regina, Pange Lingua) to time-honored prayers like Ave Maris Stella and the Te Deum, and a few contemporary hymns composed by their vicaress general (now there’s a title). The contemporary hymns get a bit sugary for my taste, in the way that John Rutter can get too sweet for me. Also, coming from a classical music background, I find myself thinking in the chant that their voices are not seamless enough. You can tell one singer from another. (Then again, they’ve got decades in front of them. Give them time.)
Like the Benedictines’ disc, though, this one overflows with a lovely serenity, sincerity and high spirits. For a little while, it’s as if you do as these nuns do and step outside this loud jangling world. As one man commented on the NPR site, “The music was timeless, and I felt lifted out of my dreary day.”
– Mary Kunz Goldman