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RECORD RACK : Mayer's mood shifts

November 17, 2009|Randy Lewis; Mikael Wood; Greg Kot; Todd Martens; August Brown; Jeff Weiss

John Mayer

"Battle Studies"

Columbia

* * 1/2

On the high-contrast black-and-white cover photo of John Mayer's latest studio album, the singer, songwriter and guitarist's hands are pulling at the collar of a thick winter coat. It seems as though he's trying to brace against the onset of frosty conditions; the overall effect is fairly Morrissey-esque.

That's no coincidence -- in themes and tone, Mayer shows a lot in common with the great romantic fatalist of '80s Brit pop: He's "Perfectly Lonely" in the song with that title, and he opens the collection with "Heartbreak Warfare," about the ways we hurt the ones we ostensibly love.

Musically, he's exploring the moody territory of acts such as Coldplay and Snow Patrol; at the same time, he displays his debt to guitar heroes including David Gilmour, Eric Clapton and George Harrison.

For the most part, he expresses himself more eloquently through his guitar than his lyrics in the 10 of 11 songs he wrote. (Intriguingly, his version of Robert Johnson's blues classic "Crossroads" puts Clapton's signature blues-rock riff through effects processing that leaves it sounding like a keyboard.)

Why he decided to ape Dave Mathews in "Who Says," his ode to the benefits of escapism during down times, is anybody's guess, but it's set to a lovely country-rock shuffle. "Assassin" stretches the metaphor of a stealth killer too far, while "War of My Life" sets foot on U2's turf -- without the soul-deep passion of the Irish rockers. That deficit leaves many of the songs strangely uninvolving, despite the beauty of his melodies and the empathetic production he and drummer Steve Jordan have given them.

The lesson of "Battle Studies"? If you're heading to war or in to love, better to take no prisoners.

-- Randy Lewis

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'Idol' winner with not much to show

Kris Allen

"Kris Allen"

19/Jive

* 1/2

Kris Allen finished in first place on the most recent season of "American Idol," but did he really win? If this fresh-faced Arkansan had been cut from the show a few weeks earlier than he was, it's easy to imagine his post-"Idol" debut delighting his loyal fans, many of whom would've been perfectly happy with -- horror of horrors -- an entire album of Fray covers.

Instead, in an incident that might someday inspire a probing investigative report on VH1, Allen somehow earned more votes than Adam Lambert, the single most compelling contestant in "Idol's" eight-season history. So now Allen's album arrives freighted with expectations, very few of which it's in a position to meet.

Coming from an unknown singer-songwriter type, "Kris Allen" might get over on its earnest charm; as the major-label bow from one of America's highest-profile pop stars, it's a snooze and a half.

Not surprisingly, given the caliber of songwriters and producers the "Idol" franchise attracts, there are highlights: "Before We Come Undone" rides a zippy electro-rock groove by Greg Kurstin of the Bird and the Bee, while the Mike Elizondo-helmed "Can't Stay Away" throbs like a not-bad Maroon 5 outtake. Allen co-wrote "Alright With Me" with Joe King of the Fray, and, believe it or not, it's actually the liveliest thing here, an up-tempo acoustic shuffle with a sort of low-cal "Hey Ya!" vibe.

Most of the material, though, tends toward a flavorless pop-rock sound that doesn't even do much to flatter Allen's appealingly rumpled vocals. Maybe next time he'll adopt a pseudonym?

-- Mikael Wood

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Throwing some heat on slow burn

Norah Jones

"The Fall"

Blue Note

* * 1/2

Though Norah Jones sings that "My mind's racing," you wouldn't know that that's a problem on her fourth studio album, "The Fall." Pacing always has been an issue for Jones. Though her 2007 album "Not Too Late" was peppered with some uncharacteristically tart socio-political commentary, her perpetually languid vocal style and unhurried arrangements suggested that she was contemplating nothing more strenuous than finding the correct position on her couch for a late-afternoon nap.

Her self-effacing musical disposition has its merits: Her light, subtle touch is a rarity in the boom-bap-bling world of pop. It was alluring enough to turn her 2002 debut, "Come Away With Me," into a runaway success. But two albums later, Jones correctly sensed staleness settling in and shuffled her collaborators for "The Fall."

Most of the songs are built on her guitar rather than piano, she adds Ryan Adams and Okkervil River's Will Sheff to her songwriting team, and new producer Jacquire King (who has worked with Tom Waits, Kings of Leon and Modest Mouse) brings a slightly more adventurous rhythmic tack. At times, Jones sings over a bed of noise -- gentle, undulating and amorphous, but noise nonetheless.

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