Welcome Back, John (Now Lose the Cowboy Hat)

BY MIKE SHULMAN

John Mayer’s newest album finds the guitarist moving to Montana in order to take a good, hard look at himself. (Credit: Columbia Records)

John Mayer’s fifth studio release, “Born and Raised,” finds him looking back on the last decade with songs drawn from a canvas of early 1970s folk rock. The sounds of Neil Young, the Allman Brothers and Crosby Stills and Nash burst out of the album unapologetically and fully aware of the sound he is creating.

Mayer has been creeping out of the spotlight for the last two years, following a period when he became more famous for his tweets and celebrity girlfriends (and the subsequent retaliation songs) than he was for being what some would call the best rock artist of the last decade. His rise from pop/rock cutie with a guitar to blues/rock powerhouse left him drained and apparently searching for meaning. With “Born and Raised,” he may have found what he was looking for. More country than any of his prior albums, Mayer combines acoustic rhythms with well-timed solos and licks that prove he can still play as good as anyone out there.

He may have moved to Montana to find peace of mind, but Mayer’s opening track finds its way to the west coast. “Queen of California” opens the album with an acoustic groove reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac. “The Age of Worry”  begins the album’s theme of introspection that had been absent in Mayer’s recent work.  Over jangling guitar, Mayer sings “Don’t be scared to walk alone, don’t be scared to like it.”

The album rolls into the first single, “Shadow Days,” which is Mayer at his best. An opening electric guitar riff, a simple and catchy chorus. Yet it somehow hits the spot lyrically, being both deep but direct. An apology for past transgressions, Mayer tells the listener he is “a good man with a good heart” and it is convincing on such a well-produced track.

“Speak for Me” is a bit of a throwaway track, but contains a potential Taylor Swift connection. Is it a response to her song “Speak Now”? Ms. Swift didn’t return my calls so I do not know how she feels, but it does seem like John is reaching out to her. Finally, “Something like Olivia” showcases the bluesy side of Mayer that has been missing since “Continuum.” Upbeat, filled with organs, electric guitars and backup singers, it breathes life into an album that can feel like it has to be listened to on a dusty road. This song just feels right and has the potential for a solid live performance.

The album’s midpoint introduces us to the title track, an acoustic, harmonica-laced song, featuring backing vocals from David Crosby and Graham Nash. This is a definite Mayer song, but one molded into this album’s folksy theme. Lyrically, the song is one of the album’s strongest, but it falls short of being able to hold its own as radio-worthy single. (This is indicative of the album’s overall commercial flaw: a lack of viable contenders for mainstream media.) On the other hand, the new tone and lack of attention might be the result Mayer is looking for. More of the same on “If I Ever Get Around to Living,” where Mayer sings: “Maybe it’s all a dream I’m having at seventeen, I don’t have tattoos. And very soon, mother will be calling me. Saying, “Come upstairs, you’ve got some work to do.” It’s one of the weaker songs on the album. Though the guitar fills are redeeming, they don’t save this song from the skip button.

“Love is a Verb,” a short and sweet poppy tune,  is the best song on the album. An extension of what we heard on his last album “Battle Studies,” those missing the old Mayer might find him hiding on this track, where he sings “You can’t get through love on just a pile of IOUs.” A personal favorite is “Wait Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967.” A quirky story about a submarine inventor who seems to escape his life, the lyrics are fun and coupled well with a simple snare drum and some piano. The song might be a bit out of the box, but Mayer’s familiar voice and the quality of the song make it feel familiar and definitely worth more than a passing listen.

It’s no surprise that musicians tend to have a special relationship with alcohol. “Whisky, Whisky, Whisky” is filled with the regret of nights spent drinking and mornings spent hung-over and alone. More piano and harmonica lead the listener through a familiar tale of boozing and its aftermath. A good song ,but the B-side of this album is a slow march and requires patience to sit through.

Still slow but a bit more optimistic, “A Face to Call Home” includes a full band and moves back in time musically to Mayer’s earlier albums. Despite the familiar sound, the lyrics speak to a future in a house with a companion. The opening line, “I’m an architect of days that haven’t happened yet,”  is a fantastic lyric and a hopeful thought in an album that is all about past regrets.

The end of the album is a reprise of “Born and Raised,” which is a bit lazy (album really has eleven tracks), but conceptually cool. Two minutes that pound home the concept of regret, change and finding one’s self.

Overall, this album hit the nail on the head for an artist who needed to reevaluate his purpose and re-establish how he wants to be viewed. Mayer has too much talent to be the focus of TMZ. “Born and Raised” showcases his ability to change genres while not missing a step in his lyrics or guitar playing. A lack of single- worthy songs and a stripped down sound will hurt the album’s overall appeal. However, the writing is strong and Mayer’s guitar plays all of the right notes. 7.5 out of 10.

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The Top Ten Albums of 2011 (Two Months Late)

BY THE BUNKITIERS

Deer Tick tops the list. (Credit: Deer Tick FB page)

The Bunkitiers recently finalized a two-month long debate on their favorite albums of 2011. Voting ended in a three-way tie for the the No. 9/10 spots, so 11 albums actually made the cut. Wilco receives an honorable mention for their record “The Whole Love,” which missed the list by 1/2 a point. 

9.      Sleeper Agent – Celabrasion

Released: August 2nd

Single(s):  “Get Burned”; “Get It Daddy”; “That’s My Baby”

I must have listened to this album over 50 times this past month.  It may be slightly on the “pop” side of the rock-and-roll spectrum, but the high octane, upbeat songs never disappoint.  The band acknowledges being influenced by the Pixies, but I hear Pixies meets White Stripes meets Grouplove… with a hint of Shampoo.

9.      Jack’s Mannequin – People and Things

Released: September 22nd

Single(s):  “Release Me”; “My Racing Thoughts”

People and Things is Jack’s Mannequin’s most introspective album yet, focusing on the conflicting emotions of old love.  With feelings that range from wistful to happy to hopeless, the album presents a mature tableau, wrapped in the welcome grasp of Jack’s Mannequin’s signature piano-punk sound.

9.      Wye Oak – Civilian

Released: October 24th

Single(s):  “Holy, Holy”; “Civilian”

The girl can sing, and her guitar work might be even more impressive on this meticulously crafted album.  Euphorically contrasting sounds make for an awesome listen, building from smooth and calming to epic surges of loud, raw distortion.

8.      Decemberists – The King is Dead

Released: January 14th

Single(s):  “Calamity Song”; “This Is Why We Fight”

 Somehow this album manages to pay tribute to R.E.M., the Stones, Emmylou Harris, Wilco, the Band and Neil Young while remaining unmistakably true to the Decemberists sound.  A clear departure from their 2009 record, this album features some of their best, most timeless songwriting in years.

7.      F*cked Up – David Comes to Life

Released: June 3rd

Single(s):  “Queen of Hearts”; “The Other Shoe”

Toronto’s biggest and best “hardcore” band’s David Comes to Life is a rock opera set in 1970s and 1980s England about David, a factory worker who meets a girl (Veronica), loses her, gets accused of killing her, and makes an existential journey of self-discovery along the way.  It may take a few listens to get used to the screaming vocals and follow the story, but the powerfully driving sound of melodically layered guitar riffs coupled with guest vocals from the Cults create an undeniably rocking album.  Musically, think Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America meets the Who’s Tommy.

6.      The Vaccines – What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?           

Released: March 11th                                                                             

Single(s):  “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)”; “If You Wanna”; “Norgaard”

A “generic” British rock band that some people prematurely write-off as overdone.  Don’t make that mistake.  Every track on this album is a hit, with lyrics so relatable it is nearly impossible to listen through without a few mood swings.  The album flawlessly employs a proven formula that has been misapplied too often for far too long, and makes guitar rock exciting and relevant again.

5.      The Sheepdogs – Five Easy Pieces

Released: August 2nd

Single(s):  “Who?”; “Learn My Lesson”

The first time you hear the Sheepdogs, you wonder how both your parents and Q104.3 never told you about this band.  Then you discover that they only recently got their big break as the first unsigned band ever to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone.  This EP is hopefully just a taste of things to come, and it’s nice to know that CCR and the Allman Brothers’ musical influences live on through the generations.

4.      My Morning Jacket – Circuital

Released: May 31st

Single(s):  “Circuital”; “Holdin’ On To Black Metal”

Circuital is a must have from a big festival jam/rock band known for outrageous stage performances. This is an album true to the inherent passion of music: the songs.  They speak for themselves. “Circuital” – a jam that builds like the excitement from a setting sun on a hot summer night then flows like a warm breeze.  “Outta My System” – a lost Who song that should be from Tommy. “Holding on to Black Metal” – sounds like The Heavy was sent to space with an evil children’s choir.  “You Wanna Freak Out” – Pink Floyd meets Americana… it’s all deadly.

3.      Middle Brother – Middle Brother

Released: March 1st                     

Single(s):  “Middle Brother”; “Me, Me, Me”; “Someday”

This supergroup features an elite group of frontmen (John McCauley of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit) that would be hard-pressed to release something less than extraordinary.  Their self-titled debut album sounds as if they have been playing together for years, combining raw, sensitive soulful vocals with an off-kilter rock/folk/country feel that only these guys could pull off.  I would give my right pinky to go back in time and witness the writing and recording process for this album. They must have had a blast.

2.      Funeral Party – The Golden Age of Knowhere       

Released: March 29th                                                                                           

Single(s): “Finale”; “New York City Moves to the Sound of L.A.”; “Just Because”

High energy jams with piercing vocals and powerfully addicting guitar riffs.  Think Free Energy meets Mars Volta.  For some of us, “Finale” was the single of the year, and the rest of the album does not disappoint.

1.      Deer Tick – Divine Providence

Released: October 24th

Single(s):  “Main Street”; “Let’s All Go To the Bar”; “The Bump”

This band puts on one of the best live shows we have ever seen.  With Divine Providence, Deer Tick has finally recorded an album true to their live sound: raw, loud, heartfelt and (most of all) fun as hell.  The album is jam-packed with fun, catchy hits fueled by booze and raw emotion, all with a sincerity that makes it just a bit easier to have faith in the future of music.  The album sailed through to the top spot by a wide margin, making four out of the five voters’ top 10 (including two #1 votes and a #2).  Props to McCauley (and Goldsmith of Dawes for that matter) for releasing two amazing albums in a year.  Look out for Delta Spirit’s new album release on March 13th.

The Bunkitiers are contributing writers to Yi!, covering the latest artists, albums and live shows in the New York City area. 

The Top Ten Albums of 2011 (Two Months Late)

BY THE BUNKITIERS

Deer Tick tops the list. (Credit: Deer Tick FB page)

The Bunkitiers recently finalized a two-month long debate on their favorite albums of 2011. Voting ended in a three-way tie for the the No. 9/10 spots, so 11 albums actually made the cut. Wilco receives an honorable mention for their record “The Whole Love,” which missed the list by 1/2 a point. 

9.      Sleeper Agent – Celabrasion

Released: August 2nd

Single(s):  “Get Burned”; “Get It Daddy”; “That’s My Baby”

I must have listened to this album over 50 times this past month.  It may be slightly on the “pop” side of the rock-and-roll spectrum, but the high octane, upbeat songs never disappoint.  The band acknowledges being influenced by the Pixies, but I hear Pixies meets White Stripes meets Grouplove… with a hint of Shampoo.

9.      Jack’s Mannequin – People and Things

Released: September 22nd

Single(s):  “Release Me”; “My Racing Thoughts”

People and Things is Jack’s Mannequin’s most introspective album yet, focusing on the conflicting emotions of old love.  With feelings that range from wistful to happy to hopeless, the album presents a mature tableau, wrapped in the welcome grasp of Jack’s Mannequin’s signature piano-punk sound.

9.      Wye Oak – Civilian

Released: October 24th

Single(s):  “Holy, Holy”; “Civilian”

The girl can sing, and her guitar work might be even more impressive on this meticulously crafted album.  Euphorically contrasting sounds make for an awesome listen, building from smooth and calming to epic surges of loud, raw distortion.

8.      Decemberists – The King is Dead

Released: January 14th

Single(s):  “Calamity Song”; “This Is Why We Fight”

 Somehow this album manages to pay tribute to R.E.M., the Stones, Emmylou Harris, Wilco, the Band and Neil Young while remaining unmistakably true to the Decemberists sound.  A clear departure from their 2009 record, this album features some of their best, most timeless songwriting in years.

7.      F*cked Up – David Comes to Life

Released: June 3rd

Single(s):  “Queen of Hearts”; “The Other Shoe”

Toronto’s biggest and best “hardcore” band’s David Comes to Life is a rock opera set in 1970s and 1980s England about David, a factory worker who meets a girl (Veronica), loses her, gets accused of killing her, and makes an existential journey of self-discovery along the way.  It may take a few listens to get used to the screaming vocals and follow the story, but the powerfully driving sound of melodically layered guitar riffs coupled with guest vocals from the Cults create an undeniably rocking album.  Musically, think Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America meets the Who’s Tommy.

6.      The Vaccines – What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?           

Released: March 11th                                                                             

Single(s):  “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)”; “If You Wanna”; “Norgaard”

A “generic” British rock band that some people prematurely write-off as overdone.  Don’t make that mistake.  Every track on this album is a hit, with lyrics so relatable it is nearly impossible to listen through without a few mood swings.  The album flawlessly employs a proven formula that has been misapplied too often for far too long, and makes guitar rock exciting and relevant again.

5.      The Sheepdogs – Five Easy Pieces

Released: August 2nd

Single(s):  “Who?”; “Learn My Lesson”

The first time you hear the Sheepdogs, you wonder how both your parents and Q104.3 never told you about this band.  Then you discover that they only recently got their big break as the first unsigned band ever to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone.  This EP is hopefully just a taste of things to come, and it’s nice to know that CCR and the Allman Brothers’ musical influences live on through the generations.

4.      My Morning Jacket – Circuital

Released: May 31st

Single(s):  “Circuital”; “Holdin’ On To Black Metal”

Circuital is a must have from a big festival jam/rock band known for outrageous stage performances. This is an album true to the inherent passion of music: the songs.  They speak for themselves. “Circuital” – a jam that builds like the excitement from a setting sun on a hot summer night then flows like a warm breeze.  “Outta My System” – a lost Who song that should be from Tommy. “Holding on to Black Metal” – sounds like The Heavy was sent to space with an evil children’s choir.  “You Wanna Freak Out” – Pink Floyd meets Americana… it’s all deadly.

3.      Middle Brother – Middle Brother

Released: March 1st                     

Single(s):  “Middle Brother”; “Me, Me, Me”; “Someday”

This supergroup features an elite group of frontmen (John McCauley of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit) that would be hard-pressed to release something less than extraordinary.  Their self-titled debut album sounds as if they have been playing together for years, combining raw, sensitive soulful vocals with an off-kilter rock/folk/country feel that only these guys could pull off.  I would give my right pinky to go back in time and witness the writing and recording process for this album. They must have had a blast.

2.      Funeral Party – The Golden Age of Knowhere       

Released: March 29th                                                                                           

Single(s): “Finale”; “New York City Moves to the Sound of L.A.”; “Just Because”

High energy jams with piercing vocals and powerfully addicting guitar riffs.  Think Free Energy meets Mars Volta.  For some of us, “Finale” was the single of the year, and the rest of the album does not disappoint.

1.      Deer Tick – Divine Providence

Released: October 24th

Single(s):  “Main Street”; “Let’s All Go To the Bar”; “The Bump”

This band puts on one of the best live shows we have ever seen.  With Divine Providence, Deer Tick has finally recorded an album true to their live sound: raw, loud, heartfelt and (most of all) fun as hell.  The album is jam-packed with fun, catchy hits fueled by booze and raw emotion, all with a sincerity that makes it just a bit easier to have faith in the future of music.  The album sailed through to the top spot by a wide margin, making four out of the five voters’ top 10 (including two #1 votes and a #2).  Props to McCauley (and Goldsmith of Dawes for that matter) for releasing two amazing albums in a year.  Look out for Delta Spirit’s new album release on March 13th.

The Bunkitiers are contributing writers to Yi!, covering the latest artists, albums and live shows in the New York City area.