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.
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.
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.