Edwin Arnaudin – Staff Writer
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Ready or not, John Mayer’s folk rock album is here. With electrified Harvest-like cover art and a title suggesting a childhood spent at the turntable, Mayer goes back in time on Born and Raised and the stripped-down sounds fit him surprisingly well.
Gone is the predictable pop troubadour we’ve come to know (and which Mayer himself tried to make us forget on his overlooked Trio album, Try!). Good riddance! Rather than desperately gunning for a hit single, Born and Raised takes the route of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and focuses on an album-length vibe in lieu of a few big numbers.
From the road-tripping groove of opener “Queen of California,” Mayer’s throwback style proves irresistible. Clean Southern guitar licks, tinkling piano keys, and restrained tempos abound on these dozen tracks and lead to mostly successful ends. The title number sports a Dylan-esque simplicity in its harmonica and acoustic guitar tandem, and Mayer sounds just as strong harmonizing with David Crosby and Graham Nash. Elsewhere, the lead guitar of “Shadow Days” (the album’s alleged single) would be at home on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack, and with “Speak For Me,” Mayer takes his famous influences, wrings them through the decades, and assembles a gem that could be his finest song to date.
After a strong first half, however, the wheels begin to fall off as Born and Raised eases (a bit too slowly) to the finish line. Cringe-worthy titles become increasingly prevalent and serve as harbingers of the implosions that follow. “Love Is A Verb” is the kind of corny songwriting more at home on modern country radio, while the repetitive drag of “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey” nearly undoes all of Mayer’s hard work to that point. A catchy, countrified reprise of the title track closes things out and partially atones for these transgressions, but can’t quite push the album into must-listen territory. Pick and choose, though, and there’s a nice little EP hiding within.
Don’t Miss – “Speak For Me”
Mayer’s crisp finger-picking and nimble vocals echo Mark Knopfler at his finest. While the song’s narrator makes a subtle call for tunes to which he can relate, yet also sing along, this stunning song fills that void on its own. In the middle of treading established styles, here Mayer transcends mere homage and creates a something fresh and new. 30 years from now, it could be the inspiration for an artist’s “back to basics” album.
OK to Skip – “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey”
If the title doesn’t raise enough red flags, the song itself will make you want to waive a white one. This is Mayer at his worst, attempting to be deep and soulful, but failing miserably. The annoying broken-record chorus (“Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey/ Water, Water, Water/ Sleeeeeep”) stretches Born and Raised to a breaking point. With no interesting instrumentation to distract from the gloom, it’s a long wait for the next number.