Album reviews: Norah Jones's ‘The Fall,' John Mayer's ‘Battle Studies'

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By Allison Stewart
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

At this point in their careers, John Mayer and Norah Jones, the reigning King and Queen of Minivan Rock, need to make peace with their amiable dullness, or do something about it. Both artists specialize in good-but-not-interesting discs that prize virtuosity (Jones's voice, Mayer's guitar playing) over innovation. Both artists, who are releasing their fourth solo studio discs on the same day, try for modest makeovers; only Jones succeeds.

Since releasing her platinum-times-infinity debut, "Come Away With Me," Jones has slowly, judiciously tweaked her sound, moving from mild brunch-friendly jazz to mild, brunch-friendly country-jazz to the mild, brunch-friendly rock of "The Fall." Jones picks her way carefully through the disc's decorous tracks, investing her usually unruffled sound with just enough rough-and-tumble to suggest she has heard, and agrees with, every S'Norah Jones joke ever made.

Populated by midtempo guitar ballads and produced by Tom Waits collaborator Jacquire King, "The Fall" is extravagantly pretty and inevitably familiar, even as it takes nominal detours into lite funk (the breakup ballad "Back to Manhattan") and lite soul (the fine first single, "Chasing Pirates"). Jones wisely pairs with unthreatening eccentrics like Ryan Adams (who co-wrote the sleepy, lovely "Light as a Feather") and, on the atmospheric "Stuck," Okkervil River's Will Sheff, who has enough quirk to supply a dozen Starbucks divas and still have enough left over for Feist.

Jones has always appeared genuinely torn between the adventurous artist she seems to want to be and the immaculate, unthrilling albums she actually makes. On "The Fall," that gulf narrows, but only slightly. On the opening ballad, "Chasing Pirates," she addresses a lover who wants to call it an evening, complaining that she's "not done with the night." Because this is a Norah Jones album, it's not a night of wild debauchery she has in mind; she just wants to finish her book.

Jones may want to be edgier, but John Mayer wants to be Sting. Even worse: He's succeeding. Sting at least had a good run as a post-punk icon before settling down to a life of castles and fustiness and earnest adult contemporary songs about nuclear war. But since his debut, the 32-year-old Mayer has aimed for the middle of the road like a lukewarm-seeking missile.

"Battle Studies" is a loosely woven concept album about relationships as a form of combat, land so well-tilled by Pat Benatar in the early '80s that it need never be revisited. Mayer is a dead-on singer and a peerless guitarist, but he can be a lackadaisical songwriter. "Battle Studies" bogs down under the weight of too many toothless sound-alike ballads about the futility of love, too many songs with their title repeated over and over, in place of an actual chorus.

There are exceptions: "Half of My Heart" is a great '70s-throwback duet with an under-deployed Taylor Swift; "Who Says" is an everydude defense of herb-smoking cloaked as a libertarian broadside that makes his not-that-bad-in-retrospect "Waiting on the World to Change" sound like "All Along the Watchtower" by comparison.

Jones, at least, seems as endearingly snoozy off-record as on. But for Mayer, whose whip-smart interviews and richly documented dating life suggest that an actual interesting person resides underneath all that hair, teeth and fondness for metaphors, such musical innocuousness is unforgivable. Merely by existing, "Battle Studies" violates Internet Rule 17: Never let your Twitter account be more interesting than you are.

Download these Norah Jones: "Stuck," "Chasing Pirates," "Back to Manhattan"; John Mayer: "Half of My Heart," "Assassin" Stewart is a freelance writer.

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