Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

New albums from John Mayer and Norah Jones

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Norah Jones, "The Fall" (Blue Note) [1.5 STARS out of 4]

John Mayer, "Battle Studies" (Columbia) [1/2 STAR out of 4]

Amid an infinite sea of rich, complex and at times challenging flavors, sometimes you just want a scoop of plain vanilla. There's nothing wrong with that, but even in the world of unfettered whiteness, there are degrees of quality, ranging from, say, a thick and creamy scoop of Ben & Jerry's to the generic, tasteless and ice-speckled stuff on deep discount at the supermarket.

Easy-listening coffee-house fixtures Norah Jones and John Mayer fall into the latter category. In both cases, this is nothing short of a crying shame, because each is capable of much better--30-year-old Jones with her sultry, smoky, sleepy-time jazz chanteuse vocals, and 32-year-old Mayer with his long-since-stifled grounding in credible electric blues. Yet on their fourth studio albums, both compromise their roots as never before, cheerfully yielding to the lowest-common-denominator demands of the pop machine to churn out buckets of blandness.

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Jones is slightly more successful than Mayer with "The Fall," a title clearly meant to evoke the encroaching gray stillness of the season rather than her commercial potential. Though she turns to producer Jacquire King, a veteran craftsmen of hipster-rock efforts by Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon, a minimalist cabaret sound and somnambulistic mood prevail, with guest collaborators such as Ryan Adams and Will Sheff of Okkervil River doing little to elevate the lulling conformity of the songwriting. Jones does mellow chill-out reasonably well, but after a few tracks of it, you're thinking, "Snorah." Things only really pick up midway through the disc on "It's Gonna Be," a hypnotic swampy groove a la Dr. John, which underscores that this still-young artist could do great things if only she challenged herself a bit.

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Meanwhile, though Mayer promises explosive excitement on "Battle Studies"--"Clouds of sulfur in the air/Bombs are falling everywhere/It's heartbreak warfare," he croons in the opening track--he veers closer to some unholy hybrid of Sting and Dave Matthews, and the romantic pap of the 10 original tracks fizzle like the embarrassing dud of a North Korean nuke. Laden with laughable romantic-schlock lyrics and trite, sappy melodies, these songs aim for the pathos of classic Carpenters but come closer to maudlin Barry Manilow. And no, neither the guest turn by Taylor Swift on "Half of My Heart" nor the two Boomer-courting covers--exceedingly lame, Lite-FM versions of the Cream via Robert Johnson standard "Crossroads" and Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire"--do a thing to elevate the dross.

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18 Comments

How ironic--and disappointing--that a critic representing a major Chicago newspaper and condemning "trite" melodies and "schlock" lyrics should employ so many cliches and mixed metaphors during his brief critique.

Does the first sentence imply the existence of a seemingly watery "sea" of ice cream from which one can take a "scoop"?

Has "crying shame" not been overused enough?

And can "dross" (the scum that forms on the surface of molten metal) technically be "elevated"?

Perhaps, to employ a fitting cliche, writers in glass houses should not throw stones.

Agreed with AnnaBelle - this critic has a long way to go before ever matching the cleverness of the people he's criticizing. Both "The Fall" and "Battle Studies" are an evolution for the respective artists and both are solid, musically interesting albums that I would rate well above average. Have a listen!

I agree with AnnaBelle and Bram. Mr. DeRogatis de facto states that music outside of the 'jazz' and 'blues' genre is nothing more than "pop machine... blandness," and insults artists like Barry Manilow with labels like "maudlin." In fact, it is Mr. DeRogatis' critiques of these two exquisitely sophisticated artists that ooze elitism of the worst kind with every prosaic metaphor he uses. Maybe he should turn a critical eye on his own inflated ego before he puts other people's work down. John Mayer's new album is a work of art that is clearly way too refined and subtle for Mr. DeRogatis' limited musical vocabulary.

Jim, you're a fat f--- that doesn't know d--- about music. Shouldn't you be reviewing the new menu at KFC?

"Who Says" you're correct sir? Love "Do You Know Me", "Edge of Desire", "War of My Life" and "Assassin" on the new John Mayer album. Ditto on all AnnaBelle said, too.

I am a big fan of both artists but I think the two previous posters miss the point of the review. The critic here clearly thinks Jones and Mayer have talent, but their new albums fail to reach the levels he (and I, for that matter) believes them capable of achieving. Don't be so quick to take offense and defend either musician. If the albums aren't great, they aren't great.

Even worse about John Mayer is the media hype that he's a guitar virtuoso that will supplant Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Clapton and Brian May. He's a pleasant and talented vocalist and guitarist but he's no Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck.

Norah Jones has the kind of talent that will give her (if she wants) a thirty or forty year career in the music industry. Long after most of the current artists have been forgotten, Norah Jones will still be making music.

John Mayer Rules!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! John Mayer I love You!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Keep rockin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

"and the romantic pap of the 10 original tracks fizzle like the embarrassing dud of a North Korean nuke."

Thank god your not the one writing lyrics...that was the worst simile ever.

The cover of the John Mayer album, with the hair gel and that dopey faraway stare, reminds me of what happens when boy bands start to age, the fun is gone and replaced with insipid platitudes of a newfound seriousness. One listen confirms this.

My review of your review has you sitting at 0.5/4 stars. And that's being generous.
You're attempt at shock value fails. You might think it makes you an elitist, but rather tells the general public, who chose to read such awful 'insight' (I for one regretably did), that you know nothing about music OR writing professionally.
What you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone reading this review is now dumber for having read to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

great artits no comment!

Whoever wrote this is completely insane, has no taste in good music, and needs a lot more experience! I have yet to hear the new Norah Jones, but i will definitely check it out! However, John Mayer has hit a five star here! This album has a completely new sound, a refreshing and distinguished change from the mainstream music we hear on the radio. I feel like this is the future of music, it is evolved! I love it more than anything i've heard yet! Assassin is absolutely mindblowing!

Both on the EP, and live, Jesse Palter & The Alter Ego are incredibly solid. The music draws you in, and makes you realize how good they are at connecting real-life situations into great music that you can relate to. And even if you don't want to relate to anything, its great music anyway. The musical theories are present - for the music geeks, the physical energy is there - for the depressed to be uplifted, and the overall message is DAMN strong (even for the intelligence-impaired). Destined for greatness.

So how many of you commenters actually work for the label? Please, ridiculous comments. Whether or not I agree with his reviews or not is irrevelant, he is entitled to his opinion and I also think he is entitled to demand more from artists who he thinks are capable of it.

Thank you, Mr. DeRogatis, for your honest and accurate review of Battle Studies. Lite-FM, indeed. I look forward to years of hearing its tracks while I pick out produce at the grocery store. It is a very good soft rock album -- maybe even one of the best "adult contemporary" albums of the year. Having not heard any others, I can't really say for certain. What is certain is that Mr. Mayer can do (and has done) better, but alas, he does not need to in order to sell records and concert tickets (see, e.g., twig's comment above). Regardless, I'm glad that someone is asking him to try!

Hey John Mayer, didn't Pat Benatar cover this ground like 25 years ago?

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on November 11, 2009 7:18 AM.

50 Cent, "Before I Self Destruct" (Interscope) [1 STAR out of 4] was the previous entry in this blog.

Kid Sister finally gets ready to drop "Ultraviolet" is the next entry in this blog.

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