Known Johnson

December 16, 2006

Tasting crow: John Mayer

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 11:51 pm

I am fully prepared to admit that I am wrong when I am wrong. I’m just not wrong that often, not about music. But, in this case, I’ve been wrong about John Mayer. I had written him off almost entirely because of the one song I’d bothered to allow into my brain – the same one most people know him for, “Your Body Is A Wonderland,” one of the creepiest songs I’ve heard in recent memory. And, yeah, I’ve read the numerous statements about his guitar skills, etc., but I’d simply ignored them thinking that if he were so great a guitarist, surely he’d not write “Wonderland.” Yeah, yeah, I know, “great guitarist,” etc., etc.

Or maybe it was the similarity to Dave Matthews, vocally, that also turned me off – I’m not going to be one of those who rips on the Dave Matthews Band, I think they’re a fine band who turned out some great songs, but at some point I just seemed to move on. I think I simply overdosed on him years ago to the point that I just don’t seem to be able to really stomach their music anymore. It happens.

Or maybe it’s the banal, grasping-at-the-charts qualities I found in what little of his music I admit that I’d heard . . . until recently, when I heard “Gravity,” a live version, playing somewhere and it somehow sunk in that this tender little blues song, filled with incredible, nuanced guitar playing, some of the finest guitar playing I’ve heard in a while, in fact – the kind of stuff that leaves indelible marks on your soul and begs you to play it again, and again – had sold me. It was one of those moments where I was caught listening to everything – the lyrics, simple and yet yearning and thoughtful enough to mean something, and maybe more than they might seem at first; the backing band tight and responsive, like a good blues band should be; but mostly that guitar – notes squirting and flitting here and there in a perfect call-and-response, so barely under control. All the elements that make for great guitar listening. I was hooked. On John freaking Mayer? No, no, this can’t be. But it was.

And it was as if the fates had planned it – Amazon had one of their special deals where not only were both Try!, Mayer’s live blues disc (the one I preferred to get, to be honest) with jazz great (and current Who member) Pino Palladino on bass, and his latest, Continuum, which I wasn’t so hot to pick up, on sale very cheap, but together they were cheaper than buying them separately anywhere else. I took the plunge. When they arrived a few days later I sheepishly took Try! out with me on a drive thinking that I’d surely realize I’d made a dumb mistake, but immediately I felt vindicated – Mayer killed me with his playing. He may just be a young guy who’s never suffered a day in his life, but he can play the blues with the best of them. The Tragically Hip may have been right when they sang that “the blues are not required” – to play the blues these days. So maybe he’s not completely original – he has certainly picked up a good deal of his sound, both vocally and in his guitar playing, from Stevie Ray Vaughan, but I was quick to find out that when he steps out of the blues and into more mainstream music, as on Continuum, it’s merely an influence rather than an imitation.

It wasn’t immediate – I didn’t warm up to Continuum very quickly and therefore I didn’t have very receptive ears for it. While it fared better than I expected, it just wasn’t a hit with me. There’s a glossy sheen to the sound that makes it hard for me to get a grip on much of what’s going on. But the studio version of “Gravity” kept me coming back, along with the uplifting toe-tapper “The Heart Of Life” which had me grabbing the liner notes to see if Eric Clapton was guesting on guitar (he’s not,) and then the plaintive “Stop This Train” became added to the “favorites” list. There’s more soul and vintage R&B infused in Mayer’s sound on Continuum than I expected to find, a fact that quickly elevated the shimmering “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” to favorite track status, beyond that studio version of “Gravity,” which pales slightly in studio form compared to the live version found on Try! that hooked me. And then there’s that note-for-note perfect reading of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold As Love” . . .

The album is certainly aimed at the mainstream, and, aside from a few tracks, wisely (for the mainstream, that is) steers clear of the blues that were Try!‘s centerpieces. It’s unfortunate, in a way, that these tracks are so much more mannered and manicured than they needed to be – that he chose to do something subtle and romantic, where the smoother approach may have worked out better for the majority of his listeners, is understandable, but I wonder how many more are out there like me who may have had reservations that might have been cast aside with a more muscular sound. Mayer could do something raw and really powerful like he did with Try! if he felt like it – but now that I’ve given in and opened my ears, I’ve come to accept the music for what it simply is now, and I finally accept that I really just plain enjoy the hell out of Continuum as-is.


  1. oh dear me, i’m tempted to send this to dj radiohead. nah, he’s cranky enough already.

    Comment by Mark Saleski — December 18, 2006 @ 3:00 pm | Reply

  2. Don’t worry, Mark – I’m putting it up on Blogcritics soon so he’ll just have to deal with it there!

    Comment by Tom — December 18, 2006 @ 3:11 pm | Reply

  3. i can hear the cussing all the way from alabama!

    Comment by Mark Saleski — December 18, 2006 @ 5:56 pm | Reply

  4. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I didn’t much care for “Waiting on the World to Change.” But months after the single was released, I stumbled upon Mayer through my favorite television show, The Office. One thing lead to another and then out of curiousity, I did a search on youtube and saw AOL sessions of “Gravity” and “Vultures.” Also, his VH1 special was posted, and so then I found out that he’s funny… really funny. I’m in denial about it, but I do have a crush on John Mayer.

    I completely agree with what you said, “Gravity” is better live. And I still find myself replaying “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” A LOT…

    Comment by Tiffany — December 28, 2006 @ 4:59 am | Reply

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