The Second Disc

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Back Tracks: John Mayer

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Paradise_Valley_cover,_by_John_MayerThis week saw the release of Paradise Valley, the sixth full-length album by singer/songwriter/guitarist John Mayer. The Connecticut-born performer remains one of the most intriguing figures in pop music since the dawn of the 2000s: educated at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Mayer was the complete package for a generation – multifaceted in his musical talents (kind of an insane cross between James Taylor and Stevie Ray Vaughan), an unabashed encyclopedia of modern pop – and, as it happened, blessed with looks that would make ladies swoon and an off-the-wall sense of humor that would satiate the boyfriends who had to attend his concerts.

Mayer’s evolution has been almost unprecedented on the pop scene: he’s transitioned astoundingly from coffeehouse acoustic pop to muscular blues to laid-back country-folk in nearly 15 years as a major-label artist. And he’s had to adjust his public persona considerably after his sense of humor (and ladies’-man placement in the tabloids) threatened to overshadow his music.

But to this longtime fan who’s seen Mayer more than any other current pop artist, Paradise Valley finally finds John Mayer confident and musically stronger than he’s been since the release of his greatest achievement, the blues-pop Continuum in 2006. (He’s also, of course, come back from a potentially career-ending throat condition, which makes his rebound all that sweeter.) In honor of the new album, I’ve decided to take a Back Tracks-style look at Mayer’s discography; not many reissues abound, but there are some fun rarities we’ll talk about.

Keep reading after the jump to dive into the world of John Mayer!

John_Mayer_Inside_wants_outInside Wants Out (self-released, 1999 – reissued Aware/Columbia, 2002)

This nine-track EP made it pretty clear, beyond the reach of what audiences at Eddie’s Attic were experiencing, that Mayer’s gift for six-string work and pop melody were already well-honed. Not all of the pieces are in place; the tracks (half of which would be re-recorded for Room for Squares) lack much in the way of studio polish, often featuring little more than Mayer and his acoustic. When they feature full band arrangements, they’re tentative, and showcase little of the SRV-influenced axe-work Mayer was hiding behind those half-closed eyes. In fact, when released nationally by Columbia in 2002, the one electric track – an instrumental reworking of “Neon” (subtitled “12:47 AM”) – was dropped. Though it’s little more than a comparative curio in the greater JM canon, some of the early songs – including the bittersweet live favorite “Comfortable” – make this worth your time, once you’ve discovered the early studio works on their own.

JohnMayer_RoomForSquaresRoom for Squares (Aware/Columbia, 2001 – reissued 2005)

Having honed his solo live act and putting on an acclaimed set at the South by Southwest Festival in 2000, labels were starting to see what this John Mayer fellow was really capable of. Signing with Aware Records, a “launch label” with a Columbia distribution deal that made stars of Train and FIve for Fighting, Mayer recorded Room for Squares all over the eastern seaboard with producer John Alagia, best known for his production of various live records by the Dave Matthews Band. Here, Mayer perfected his songs in the studio, thanks to a crack backing band anchored by Alagia, bassist David LaBruyere (who’d been touring with Mayer since the Eddie’s Attic era) and drummer Nir Z (best known as Phil Collins’ percussive replacement on Genesis’ …Calling All Stations… in 1997, though several drum tracks were initially laid down by Darren Jessee, drummer for the then-newly split Ben Folds Five). “No Such Thing,” “Neon,” “Back to You” and “My Stupid Mouth” never sounded better than they did on Squares.

And Mayer busied himself with great new tracks. Rollicking road anthem “Why Georgia,” romantic rocker “Love Song for No One” and sentimental album closer “St. Patrick’s Day” remain highlights in the Mayer canon. But nothing stuck quite like “Your Body is a Wonderland,” a song written about a high school girlfriend (but often misattributed to be about actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, with whom Mayer had briefly dated). The playful, sexy-but-romantic tune was an immediate favorite; Mayer later recalled he knew it would go over well when female visitors would instinctively dance to “Wonderland.”

Room for Squares originalRoom for Squares was initially soft-released with the above cover and a 12-track repertoire; when it was distributed nationally by Columbia, several changes were made. The travelogue “3×5” was added to the track list (the superstitious Mayer labeled “St. Patrick’s Day” as Track 14, skipping #13 entirely), the package was entirely redesigned and – most strikingly – noted engineer Jack Joseph Puig (Weezer’s Pinkerton, Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk) was hired to remix half the record, including singles “No Such Thing” and “Your Body is a Wonderland.” These mixes definitely improved the fortunes of both songs, which heavily impacted radio and peaked within Billboard‘s Top 20. After a solid 2002 in which Mayer’s music was firmly established across various formats, 2003 saw Mayer win the Grammy for Best Pop Male Vocal Performance with “Wonderland,” ousting stalwarts including Sting, James Taylor and Elton John (who’d championed Mayer in the press).

A later release on the maligned DualDisc format in 2005 included a surround mix of the record and an illuminating documentary, This Will All Make Perfect Sense Someday, featuring making-of footage behind the record and scenes from the road.

Any Given Thursday (Aware/Columbia, 2003)

Whatever the radio’s reaction to this rising star, Mayer’s fortunes would always rest on the road. Mayer remains, to this day, a strong live presence, having worked his way up from enthusiastic opener to dazzling headliner. Any Given Thursday, released as a double CD and DVD, captured Mayer at his most comfortable, stretching songs out into baggy jams (“3×5,” “Why Georgia”), having fun with arrangements (incorporating vintage pop radio hits into the nostalgic “83”), paying homage to his influences (an acoustic rendition of The Police’s “Message in a Bottle,” a faithful take on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Lenny”) and, generally, giving the first hint that maybe there was more to this fellow than acoustic singalongs.

Heavierthings.johnmayer.albumcoverHeavier Things (Aware/Columbia, 2003 – reissued 2005)

Ah, the sophomore record. Mayer obviously wanted to prove himself, as the title suggests. Working again with Jack Joseph Puig (this time in the producer’s chair), Mayer’s songs are poppy but bite a little harder. Electric guitar work is the order of the day, along with light jazz and even some trip-pop. (Eternally underrated opener “Clarity,” the album’s second single, features trumpet work from jazzman Roy Hargrove and drums by Questlove of The Roots.) Much of the record is laid back, even the heavier tracks (“Bigger Than My Body,” “Only Heart,” “Home Life”) – and, at one point, Mayer indicates where he might be most comfortable with the blues tune “Come Back to Bed.”

But the song that really sent Mayer into the stratosphere was the sole “sensitive acoustic” track, “Daughters.” A cautionary, semi-heavy-handed rumination on the impact of a father’s love (or lack thereof) on a potential lover, Mayer fought Columbia hard on releasing the track as a single, but relented – only to see it become the record’s only Top 40 hit, and a smash on adult contemporary radio. What’s more, it netted Mayer two more Grammy Awards – another Best Pop Male Vocal Performance award, and the coveted Song of the Year trophy. Mayer was all too ready to shed his singer-songwriter image by that point, however; on the Grammys, his performance (closer to the song’s original conception as a blues track) was backed by bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan, who’d play immense parts in the next few years of Mayer’s career.

For collectors, Heavier Things was also released as a DualDisc, with a surround mix of the record and a rather humorous, fake Charlie Rose-type one on one between John and bumbling fictional TV presenter “Paul Reddy.” A bonus EP, released through Best Buy in 2004 and featuring the album cover in green instead of blue, featured five non-LP tracks, including live cuts, an acoustic cover of Radiohead’s “Kid-A” and the rare single remix of “Clarity.”

John_Mayer_As_Is_coverAs/Is (Aware/Columbia, 2004)

Again, Mayer was a force to be reckoned with on the road when promoting Heavier Things – and he was so ready to prove it that he issued six live products in 2003 and 2004. The As/Is series featured five mini-albums released quickly to iTunes after Mayer’s live engagements throughout most of the summer, and one double-disc compilation, released primarily to indie retailers, collating the best of those releases with one unreleased live cut, a simmering recording of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” featuring turntable work from tour opener DJ Logic and a coy riff on Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.”

TRy!TRY! (Aware/Columbia, 2005)

He was every teenage and college girl’s dream in 2005, but what John Mayer really wanted to do was sing the blues. In 2005, he took legendary session musicians Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan out on a down ‘n’ dirty club/theater tour, running through heavy-hitting covers (“I Got a Woman,” “Every Day I Have the Blues”), re-grooved originals (a slow-burning “Daughters”) and a handful of new originals (“Who Did You Think I Was” and “Come When I Call,” released as a digital studio single, and killer cuts like “Good Love is On the Way,” “Gravity” and “Vultures”). Recorded over two early shows in Chicago, TRY! captured a moment in Mayer’s career that could have easily been a creative lark but turned out to be an exciting career move.

Continuum_(album)Continuum (Aware/Columbia, 2006 – reissued 2007/2008)

By 2006, it was clear that Mayer’s blues-rock streak wasn’t a mere affectation. He’d guested on records by B.B. King and Herbie Hancock and opened for The Rolling Stones, all before turning 30. Offstage, the new Mayer was even more of a self-confident raconteur than he’d established in the past, giving up a lengthy abstinence from alcohol and making headlines in the tabloids for dating pop star Jessica Simpson and actress Jennifer Aniston.

But he had a powerful weapon to stave off growing claims that he was going too far in public: a taut, deep album, recorded with Palladino and Jordan, that tackled success (“Gravity,” “Vultures”), mortality (“The Heart of Life,” “Stop This Train”), heartache (“Dreaming with a Broken Heart,” “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”) and even light politics (“Waiting on the World to Change,” “Belief”). For the first time on LP, Mayer’s electric guitar prowess was in full display, lyrical but not overbearing. It was no surprise that the commercially and critically acclaimed Continuum earned Mayer strong comparisons to Eric Clapton – nor was it a shock to see it take home two more Grammys, including Best Pop Vocal Album and (once again) Best Pop Male Vocal Performance for “Waiting on the World to Change.” (Continuum also earned Mayer a coveted Album of the Year nomination; it lost to the Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way.)

Again, Mayer followed up the album with a major tour, and would reissue the record in 2007 as a double-disc set featuring a bonus EP of live recordings from that summer’s cross-country trek. That same year also saw, perplexingly but unsurprisingly, a successful single far removed from the blues lines he’d been crossing: the bittersweet ballad “Say,” recorded for the Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman comedy-drama The Bucket List. It became Mayer’s biggest hit to date, and a second reissue, foregoing the bonus live disc, featured the song tacked on to the end of the original album.

Layout 1The Village Sessions (Aware/Columbia, 2006)

Though Continuum was an electric album, this EP, featuring six early versions of tracks from the record proved they’d work in any context. This set, initially released as an indie retail exclusive, featured contributions from Palladino and Jordan as well as Mayer’s new touring band members, including keyboardist Ricky Peterson and guitarist Robbie McIntosh, formerly of The Pretenders and Paul McCartney’s band and one of three guitarists in Mayer’s live band. (The acoustic run-through of “Belief” on this EP earned Mayer another Grammy nomination for – you guessed it – Best Pop Male Vocal Performance.)

Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles (Columbia, 2008)

Mayer kissed off the era that changed his career in the coolest way possible: a three-part charity concert, recorded in Los Angeles in the winter of 2007 and featuring an acoustic solo set, a set with the John Mayer Trio and a closing set with Mayer’s touring band. Released as a double CD and multi-vinyl set as well as recorded on film by famed rock photographer Danny Clinch (an exclusive edition at Target stores paired up the CDs and DVD), this may be the definitive live Mayer album, with phenomenal performances and killer set lists. (Mayer’s acoustic session included a killer lovelorn track, “In Your Atmosphere,” written during the Heavier Things era, and a cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” which earned a fair amount of radio airplay.)

JohnMayerBattleStudiesBattle Studies (Columbia, 2009 – reissued 2010)

It had to happen sooner or later. Mayer’s music was starting to get heavily overshadowed by his tabloid presence. He attempted terrible stand-up comedy. He constantly posted on Twitter, and gave mock press conferences outside his apartment about failed relationships. But there was always that hope – that expectation, often – that his music would be more than enough to keep critics off his back.

This time, that was not the case.

It’s not that Battle Studies is bad – songs like “Edge of Desire” and “Assassin” are pleasant enough ideas – but nothing really breaks new ground after the innovation of Continuum. Even the singles sound too much like others, whether it’s U2 (“Heartbreak Warfare“), Tom Petty (“Half of My Heart,” a duet with future romantic conquest Taylor Swift) or – worst of all – Mayer himself (acoustic shuffle “Who Says“). An eventual reissue paired the album with a DVD performance on VH-1 Storytellers.

But really, nothing was going to save this album after the interview. Speaking to Playboy in 2010, Mayer flirted with misogyny (calling ex-lover Jessica Simpson “sexual napalm”) and racism (comparing his manhood to David Duke). Had he finally taken his self-aware smartassery too far? Based on the emotional onstage apology Mayer offered the night the interview was published – and his subsequent flight from social media – it would appear that way.

600px-John_Mayer_Born_and_Raised_CoverBorn and Raised (Columbia, 2012)

Do you believe in fate? Mayer would be right to. After Battle Studies disappeared from view, Mayer retreated to a residence in Montana to clear his clouded head. He laid low, not even pausing to address his more popular critics. (The seemingly-jilted Taylor Swift penned, as she often does, a song to an ex, “Dear John,” in 2010; its potential subject was not hard to decipher.) Mayer was prepared to re-emerge in 2011, looking the part of shaggy cowboy and armed with a clutch of tunes produced by Don Was and inspired by ’60s and ’70s Laurel Canyon folk rock.

And that’s when disaster struck. Mayer’s few promotional appearances for the year, as well as a projected release date for fifth album Born and Raised, were scuttled when he suddenly developed a granuloma – a growth on top of his vocal cords – that rendered him absolutely mute. When the album was ultimately released the following spring, Mayer had recovered sufficiently – but an announced tour was again canned when the condition flared up again, requiring risky surgery.

It’s less the stylistic shift that makes Born and Raised a tricky listen at first blush and more the tentativeness in his normally-confident musical voice. Lead single “Shadow Days” was an obvious mea culpa to his formerly obnoxious behavior, and it seemed a bit as if Mayer wasn’t sure if he was heading in the right direction just yet. But after the musician with so much to say was nearly silenced for good, Born and Raised will always remain an important signpost in Mayer’s career.

TheComplete2012PerformancesCollectionThe Complete 2012 Performances Collection (Columbia, 2012)

Though he had to bow out for much of the year, Mayer didn’t go to far without issuing a consolation prize: a digital EP (and, later that year, a 12″ exclusive on Record Store Day’s Black Friday event) featuring acoustic run-throughs of Battle Studies tracks – including great takes on album sides “Speak for Me” and bluesy “Something Like Olivia” – and one unreleased tune, “Go Easy on Me.”

Written by Mike Duquette

August 22, 2013 at 14:03

2 Responses

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  1. I have most of Mayer’s albums, and like them, but for some reason, rarely listen to them much these days. The guy is phenomenally talented, no doubt, but there are lots of other musicians and albums I reach for before his. But, I must admit, “Paradise Valley” is a step up for him. On other records, I could always detect some traces of “inauthenticity,” as if he were deliberately trying to channel a feeling and sound from the past, and while one could argue he’s definitely going back to early ’70s Laurel Canyon for PV, this sounds less forced and more “true” than many of his other records. Don’t know quite how else to articulate it, but that’s how I’ve felt both times I’ve listened to it so far. It’s a nice continuation of “Born and Raised,” which I thought was an excellent effort, but “Paradise Valley” is even better, IMO.

    Chief Brody

    August 23, 2013 at 06:33

  2. I discovered John Mayer at a Virgin Megastore listening station right when the original Room For Squares (with the black cover) was released. I was one of those early fans that continually asked my friends “Have you heard of John Mayer?” when most people still said “no” to that question. It’s been neat watching his career grow from unknown to megastar. I got to see him do an in store at Tower Records in Dallas in 2002 and now have the original RFS autographed along with a vinyl copy of the Columbia (standard) issue. I was a hardcore fan the first few years but lost interest after Continuum. However, I’m still hoping to come across an original pressing of the Inside Wants Out one of these days. I’ll also be crossing my fingers for a Room For Squares deluxe reissue at some point.


    August 24, 2013 at 01:00

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