Tag Archives: blues

John Mayer: Born and Raised

14 Jul

 

Born and Raised is a pretty important album, career-wise, for John Mayer. The last few years haven’t been too kind to him. From gracing the cover of Rolling Stone in 2007 with John Frusciante and Derek Trucks as the new Guitar Gods to an almost-career destroying interview in the same magazine three years later, it’s clear to the public eye that John Mayer the celebrity has taken precedence over John Mayer the musician.

He once had it all: backing Jay-Z one night to jamming with Buddy Guy or B.B. King or Eric Clapton on another; forming a successful blues power band (John Mayer Trio); living it up with the ladies during his acoustic coffeehouse heartthrob phase. But he lost it all, and quite publicly, that too. In a whale of personal trouble, Mayer shut himself off from the world and started working on Born and Raised. And as for the inspiration, Mayer seems to have looked all over California, especially the Laurel Canyon folk scene of the late 60s and early 70s. Quite a few American iconic artists make their presence felt on this album, as do legendary American session men like Chuck Leavell (of The Allman Brothers Band), Jim Keltner and Greg Leisz. And that makes the album very interesting indeed.

As we’ve explained, California is all over the album. Aptly enough, the album kicks off with the beautiful country folk song “Queen of California”, a retro Laurel Canyon folk tribute that should be heard around a bonfire with a hip-flask in hand. As Mayer name-drops both Young’s After the Gold Rush (“Lookin’ for the sound of neon, hun/After The Gold Rush of 1971“) and Joni Mitchell’s Blue  (“Joni want blue, a house by the sea“), the influences of the iconic songs are clear. Built on a vintage Grateful Dead groove and a classic Neil Young acoustic riff, it channels The Allman Brothers Band in its silky hooks and fills. Mayer’s in top form here, with beautiful vocals and soulful harmonies reminiscent of CSNY in all its glory, accompanied by some beautiful pedal steel playing.

 

 

On this album, John talks often of the decisions in his life. “The Age of Worry”, one such song, is a lyrical ode to fortitude. Starting off with some great acoustic picking, it segues into a plush string ornamental gusher, where Mayer’s recent acrimonious past seems to be heavy on his mind. On “Shadow Days”, backed by bristling lead guitar, shimmering piano and pedal steel (in the tone of mellow Southern Rock), Mayer is both confessional and a tad chastened about his past relationships. He admits to living in the vicious cycle of self-delusion with his relationships and paying for it: “It sucks to be honest/And it hurts to be real,” he confesses, going on to insist that, on the brighter side, these experiences have given him self-forgiveness and self-acceptance.

 

 

The title track “Born and Raised” is a vintage Mayer blues track, with the tambourine adding in a Dylan flavor and the sharp pedal steel bringing in a rootsy feel. This track has Mayer talking about the passage of time and age, as well as his parents’ divorce, and features none other than Crosby and Nash (!) guesting on backing vocals. Album closer “Born and Raised (Reprise)” is more Laurel Canyon, with a touch of harmonica and a lot of rootsy cheeriness. The harmonica again makes an appearance on the delightful “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey”, an acoustic ballad about the wonderful combination of sports and booze.

In fact, the album does well to balance the new Californian influences with dashes of vintage Mayer. “Something like Olivia” is a delightful track that features the legendary Jim Keltner on drums. This gentle soulful song, supposedly about House actress Oilvia Wilde, benefits greatly from the church organ and the peppy spunky groove giving it a a Soul flavor. “If I Ever Get Around To Living”, channeling the Grateful Dead in all its jam band glory, has Mayer reminiscing about his pre-fame 17-year old self playing guitar alone in his room alone (“When you gonna wise up boy?” he asks himself).

Speaking of vintage Mayer, his coffehouse avatar especially makes an appearance on the tracks “Love is a Verb” and “A Face to Call Home”. The former, a bit of a slow-dance-love-stoker built on a simple acoustic guitar arrangement and pleasing resonant piano, has Mayer insisting that that love is something you do, not just a word you say. His quirky lyrics (“You can’t get through love, On just a pile of IOU’s“) only make the song better. This one’s a sure-shot inclusion on the present wedding season playlist. The romantic “A Face to Call  Home”, the second last track on the album, is vintage Mayer, and easily more peppier and happier than the rest of the album. The song is capped off by a fully-drawn arrangement which extols the triumph and relief after this rather arduous journey of self-realization and self-awareness.

But the best song on the album is the profound, plaintive “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967” , which might even be his best song ever. Here, Mayer spins a tale of a discontent husband/eccentric scientist who undertakes a flight of fancy – across the Pacific – in his homemade underwater machine. The trumpet extends grandness to the song’s dreamy landscape, which is complemented wonderfully by the rolling, almost martial rhythm pattern. But like any truly good song, the rhythm and the melody propel this song forward, accentuating it without intruding on the narrative. More than any other song on the album, this song reminds us that John Mayer the teenage heartthrob is gone; and in his place is a mature and steady songwriter who questions and welcomes life in all its facets and hardships.

John Mayer has definitely matured as a songwriter and as a lyricist. While his understated blues playing is as beautiful as ever, one wishes it had a larger presence. The album has a quite a wonderful range of Californian influences; but at the same time, it has Mayer stamped all over it. Sure, the album will probably alienate his detractors even more, but it will definitely please his fans more than that. Born and Raised may just be his best album yet.

As a special bonus, we’ve made a neat little top five list of our favorite songs on this album, for your easy listening pleasure. Without further ado:

5.  If I Ever Get Around To Living

4.  Something Like Olivia

3.  Shadow Days

2. Queen Of California

1.  Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967

Verdict: Born and Raised is arguably Mayer’s best and most mature album till date. Mayer fans, go listen! And non-Mayer fans, this would be a good album to convert you.

– Sayid.

Top 5 Artists from Chennai

28 Jun

Due to a certain chain of events in my early twenties, I was made to spend the first half of this year in (what I assumed was) India’s capital of fervent orthodoxy, Chennai. When people heard of my move, they offered their condolences and (more often) their schadenfreude: but not one of them offered me a heads up about the thriving musical scene here. Now, when you see the words “Chennai” and “music” in the same sentence, it’s natural to expect the word “Carnatic” to pop up soon after. The only phrase I knew that went against this intuition was “Junkyard Groove”. But, as I eventually discovered, Chennai is one of India’s premiere hotbeds for young, alternative talent. Here’s a list of the best alternative indie that the city has to offer.

5. Little Babooshka’s Grind 

Rounding out the end of our countdown are the excellently-named veterans Little Babooshka’s Grind (LBG). They really are pioneers of Indian original rock music, making great electro-rock songs (see: “Doll” on the Blue Butterfly Express EP) way back in 1999 when most other bands on the scene were covering songs that had already been covered a million times. Songs like “Codeine” and “Money” brought sufficient funk to their old-school classic rock sound on first album This Animal is Called the Wallet, while “Basics of Life” is our favorite track off of sophomore album Bad Children.

They’ve been around for almost two decades, but the all-originals band isn’t going away anytime soon. Last November, they released new single “Big Words”, from the upcoming album Wake Up… The Break Up, when they got selected as one of the five bands at the Ray Ban Never Hide Sounds band competition. As an added bonus, here is a rare LBG cover of Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” at The Great Indian Oktober Fest, Bangalore last year!

4. Harsha Iyer

Next up on our list is a young singer-songwriter from Chennai whose debut made quite the splash last year. Harsha Iyer, at all of 19, released an album on which he wrote, sang, performed, and produced all of the twelve original tracks. Not bad for a kid who in an alternate timeline would be getting ragged by college seniors. Dabbling in a plethora of genres with a self-confidence that most 19-year-olds don’t possess, Harsha took the Indian indie scene by storm with Curious Toys. Tracks like “Overcautious” and “I Find You Boring” celebrate his considerable youth, whereas on songs like “Money” and “Not Dead Yet”, Harsha weaves tales of imaginary characters with surprisingly shrewd songwriting skills. The Chennai musician is now releasing a second album, a twenty-track behemoth, in two separate installments a month apart. His first single “Mystery Woman” is out already, and you should definitely give it a listen.

3. Adam & the Fish-eyed Poets

AATFEP is a real gem of the Chennai scene. The band is the solo singer-songwriter project of a certain Kishore Krishna, who also happens to serve as something of a mentor for younger city musicians like the above-mentioned Harsha Iyer. Both his debut Snakeism (a la the shape-shifting slitheriness of the genres on the album) and his sophmore Dead Loops are spectacular examples of what the country’s indie musicians can do if they push themselves to their boundaries. It really needn’t be said how there are far too many ‘indie’ ‘musicians’ in India who do no such thing. Snakeism in particular is dark, seething, stylish and clearly bursting at the seams with exceptional talent. “Black eyed Monster” and “Little Monkeys” are the shiniest in this gem box of a debut, whereas “Purgatory City” (Chennai?) captivates on Dead Loops. Don’t think too much. Go download both albums and just listen. Don’t be shocked if you are genuinely amazed at the influences and styles and genres that are at play in AATFEP’s work. This, my friend, is music for the cynics.

2. Junkyard Groove

At number 2 is the band that originally put Chennai on the indie map: Junkyard Groove, or JYG as it is fondly known. Ever since their debut way back in 2005, JYG has opened for some of the most famous international acts to perform in the country, and for good reason. Exceptionally refined production values, good songwriting, and truly gifted musicians: there is little that this band lacks. The energetic funk on “Feel Like a Knife” (from their 2009 album 11:11) entrances you seconds into the song, and just wait until you get to the fat bass interlude. “Folk You” and “It’s Ok” are pretty snazzy too. Their latest single “4 to 5 Things” sounds like a rocked-out Irish jig. We really suggest you listen to it.

1. The Shakey Rays

It’s hardly over-stretching the truth to state that there’s nothing in India quite like the Shakey Rays. Tight arrangements meet genuinely good songcraft in perhaps one of the most innovative bands ever to call India their homeland. You can literally listen to any five seconds off their debut, and conclude that it is both shockingly original and unnaturally good. Divine pop tunesmithery and a certain inimitable sense of musical intuition run wild and free on Tunes from the Big Belly, bringing up DMB and the Beatles and RHCP and the Kinks and whoever else with the greatest of skill: i.e., influenced by, but not imitations of. It can be safely said that there are about three or four new bands in India who have mastered this art, and possibly none as well as the Shakey Rays. As their name suggests, this band is truly the sunshine filtering through the smog of the Indian indie scene. Perhaps it is only apt that they hail from the city of year-round sunshine.

It’s impossible to pick favorite tracks on the album, but “I’m Gonna Catch That Train” is a good place to start. It takes a lot of talent to beat Junkyard Groove at their own game, but the Shakey Rays show immense promise. Music fans in Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Delhi rejoice, for the Rays are coming to a venue near you in July! Please don’t miss it.

Agree with the top 5? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section! 

Jack White: Blunderbuss

27 Jun

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Very few active musicians under the age of 40 today could be called living legends, but Jack White is truly one of them.

Blunderbuss, his fantastic debut solo album, is a rebirth of sorts. It channels his Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather past with some more White mojo, and more than a  touch of vintage White weirdness. In fact, it’s a cleaning out of sorts. Besides, his form’s much better here than his recent studio work, be it with the Strips or the Raconteurs. What’s most exciting is that Bluderbuss could well be the start of a great solo career for this modern-day Guitar Slinger.

The album kicks off with the very warm Missing Pieces, where the narrator’s being treated for a nosebleed by a woman but only wakes up to find his nose and legs hacked off, and the woman departed. Channeling vintage British prog rock tones, against the backdrop of a Rhodes piano, White sings lines like “Sometimes someone controls everything about you“, which pretty much sets the mood for the album. Produced in the backdrop of his divorce to Karen Elson, who also provides backing vocals, this song also packs in some brilliant lead guitar work. The spluttering guitar solo is sonic-perfect and melodious at the same time.  Freedom At 21, an avant-garde freak-out track peppered with peppy, breakfast hip-hop beats, continues with the anti-21st Century woman theme, with Jack White rapping (!) about a punishing femme fatale.

The first single, Love Interruption, invokes White’s gothic Dead Weather days, while second single Sixteen Saltines is the most Stripesque track on the album. A 1970s stoner boogie with heavy, filthy raunchy guitar (very reminiscent of  the White Stripes’s The Hardest Button To Button), this track is tinged with tones of jealousy and an angry falsetto that works.

 

 

The rather dark side one of the album is rounded out neatly by the title track, a beautiful piano-driven ballad about wordless love where White explains Blunderbuss as “a romantic bust, a blunder turned explosive“.

There’s a visible change in the mood from side two. The first song Hypocritical Kiss has White admitting his faults from the opening line itself, amidst the backdrop of some great piano waltz. Weep Themselves To Sleep, a staggering piano rocker, backed by some great JW electric guitar riffing, is very post-Ziggy Stardust 1970’s Bowie in its theatrics and inspiration. Interestingly, a bit of the album’s anti-woman sentiment continues on this song – “No one could blow the shows/Or throw the bones that break your nose the way I can,” sings White.

And as we come out of the busted noses part of the album, things are shook up with I’m Shakin’, an R&B cover of Little Willie John’s 1961 song. White absolutely sexes it up here with some great R&B riffs and hooks, making a blaster rocker out of this jook-joint classic. Trash Tongue Talker is White at his tribute-paying best. The piano riffs are reminiscent of his adopted Nashville roots while the vocals are reminiscent of Jagger in jive and 50’s bounce. The Nashville roots show up big-time again on the pedal steel in On and On and On, a psychedelic pop with a haunted piano accompaniment. I Guess I Should Go To Sleep has a jazzy tempo, great vocals, great piano fills and a beautiful violin solo.

While any of these tracks could be stand-alone stand-outs in any album, White has more than that up his sleeve, in the form of the best song on the album: Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy. With a great descending bass line, hopscotching rhythm and melody, White channels Dylan in his artistry and early 70s Kinks in his sound. Its irresistible arrangement is instantly lovable and makes it an instant JW classic, though it’s nothing like he’s ever done before. Also, it must be said that there’s no man out there who could do justice to this track quite like JW can.

The album closer, “Take Me With You When You Go” is an absolute JW cracker, backed by piano, fiddle and distorted electric guitar.  “And I can’t catch a breath or a break/Like a guy who’s strangled and begging,” White whines, only to push himself back on his feet with a hope of love. “Take me with you when you go, girl/Take me anywhere you go/I’ve got nothin’ keeping me, here/Take me with you when you go“. Quite a positive note to end on.

Blunderbuss is a great solo debut album. It has a great range in its influences, but still heavily steeped in the blues. But White doesn’t let the somewhat rigid structure of the blues contain him; instead, he rather uses it to paint a vivacious canvas. Last year, White’s contemporary and probably his only equal Derek Trucks’s Relevator won the Grammy for Best Blues Contemporary Album Of The Year, perhaps signaling the re-entry of the blues back into popular realms. Jack White, with his spectacular Blunderbuss, simply takes it forward. Hats off, Jack!

Verdict: Blunderbuss is easily 2012’s best album till now. Listen!

– Sayid.

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