My first exposure to the supposedly ‘new,’ post-Room For Squares John Mayer was when a friend of mine handed me the buds to his iPod, and asked me to listen to this cool, new jazz-blues musician he had ran across. He was obviously baiting me, and upon giving a track or two a spin I enjoyed it quite a bit. I soon learned that, quite contrary to what he first told me, it was actually last year’s live John Mayer Trio effort Try!. This record was quite a definite departure for the doe-eyed pop auteur. Instead of mushy love songs, he was trying to be Hendrix with a lean, mean classic blues backing team. And, most surprisingly, it kind of worked. Mayer doesn’t have the chops to be the next immortalized music-god, but he is definitely talented, and proved with that release that, when let loose, he can make one heck of a rollickingly enjoyable album.
So, it is with that direction that it brings us to where we are today. Looking at Mayer’s most recent studio effort: Continuum. I was a bit apprehensive at first, but upon repeated listens, Mayer has definitely assembled a great collection of songs here. This feels more like a follow-up to Mayer’s 2003 studio disc Heavier Things than it does Try!, but it also brings with it the loose, bluesy feel of smoky barrooms echoing throughout his solid live effort. He even carries over a tidbit or two from both Heavier Things, and Try!; just to be sure you get the hint.
I would easily be willing to go so far as to say that this is Mayer’s best album to date; and shows a definite level of maturity many (myself included) never really expected to see from the man that brought us the schmaltz of a song “Your Body Is A Wonderland.” The pop here on Continuum isn’t so much pop as it is smooth jazz. It flows through you; these songs fill the room before you even know what has happened.
As can be witnessed by first single “Waiting On The World To Change,” this record wisely walks the line between accessibility to the masses, and accessibility to blues and jazz fans. Stalwarts and casual listeners alike can latch onto these tracks, with just enough depth and catchiness to happily carry you through the effort as a whole. Mayer seems to have gotten back to the basics of recorded music: that is, creating a cohesive album, as opposed to a disc of potential singles intermittent with filler. I would go through a mini-speculative of highlights, but to be honest there isn’t a bad song in the bunch. It all just flows so evenly, and so perfectly.
I never thought the time would come that I would find myself recommending a John Mayer record, but it seems that the day of reckoning is upon us. This is good stuff—darn good stuff. Don’t let the pop history fool you; John Mayer is back, and man does he mean business.
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.