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Listening Room: John Mayer, Norah Jones and more...
It's a wonder that John Mayer has time to make music anymore, what with all the Twitter postings and tabloid appearances he makes. But somewhere in the midst of keeping us posted on his bowel movements and starlet infatuations, the guitar-slinging singer-songwriter has made not just a new album but the best and most ambitious of the four studio sets he's released so far, one that leans in a more adventurous, rock-styled direction than 2006's soul-leaning "Continuum." The loose theme of "Battle Studies," he sings, is "finding ways to keep the good alive" -- mostly in romance, though he's also courted a bit of controversy by asking "Who says I can't get stoned?" at the start of the album's first single, "Who Says." But mostly "Battle Studies" finds the good in its music as he marches through stylistic terrain such as the anthemic U2 ambience of "Heartbreak Warfare," the Beatlesque textures of "All We Ever Do is Say Goodbye" and "Friends, Lovers or Nothing," and some smooth SoCal pop melodicism on "Half My Heart" (with Taylor Swift), "Perfectly Lonely" and "Edge of Desire." Mayer also puts a funky, sinewy spin on the Cream arrangement of the Robert Johnson staple "Crossroads," though it's unlikely to make you forget that version or the original. Mayer surely get some push from the platoon of musical guests he deploys on "Battle Studies," including John Mayer Trio partners Steve Jordan (who co-produced the album) and Pino Palladino along with fellow guitarists Waddy Watchtel and Robbie McIntosh and keyboardists Ian McLagan and Jamie Muhoberac. It's easy to get caught up in the extra-musical aspects of Mayer's life, but "Battle Studies" reminds us that his most potent weapons are guitar, pen and voice.
Norah Jones, "The Fall" (Blue Note) ***
Consider this the Norah Jones album for people who haven't particularly liked her before. True, her first three albums of piano-playing gentility have amassed sales of 36 million copies, but "The Fall" -- inspired by her breakup with longtime boyfriend and bassist Lee Alexander -- has opened things up in a way her predecessors never have. Oh, Jones doesn't exactly rock til she drops, but there's a new level of creative boldness and experimentation, plenty of beats and more songs where she's playing guitar than piano. Check out the smoky voice and soulful veneer of "Chasing Pirates," the upbeat pop flavor of "Stuck," the garage rock attitude of "It's Gonna Be Me" and the slinky ambience of the Ryan Adams co-write "Light as a Feather" for evidence that, on "The Fall," Jones rises, successfully, to the challenge to be different.
New & Noteworthy:
Kris Allen, "Kris Allen" (19/Jive): The latest "American Idol" champ gets a one-week jump on more highly anticipated runner-up Adam Lambert's debut, with help from producers and writers who have turned around hits for the likes of Leona Lewis, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Fergie and some other "Idol" winners.
Blind Boys of Alabama, "Duets" (Saguardo Road): The Grammy Award-winning gospel group adds four new collaborations to 10 team-ups from previous albums.
The Cribs, "Ignore the Ignorant" (Warner Bros.): The British trio becomes a quartet with the addition of Johnny Marry (The Smiths, Modest Mouse) on its fourth album.
50 Cent, "Before I Self Destruct" (Aftermath/Interscope/Shady): The rapper's fifth full-length is chock full of guest appearances by Eminem, Dr. Dre, Destiny's Child's Kelly Rowlands, Ne-Yo and Fiddy's own G-Unit crew.
The Fray, "The Fray" (Epic): An expanded edition of the Denver quartet's sophomore album features a second disc of new and live songs.
Wyclef Jean, "Toussaint St. Jean: From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansion" (Carnival House/MegaForce): The Fugee's latest solo outing is a mixtape EP on which he adopts a new alter ego.
Leona Lewis, "Echo" (Syco/J): The British songstress' second album re-teams her with "Bleeding Love" writer Ryan "Alias" Tedder for the single "Happy," as well as Max Martin, Kevin Rudolf, John Shanks and other hitmakers.
Paul McCartney, "Good Evening New York City" (Hear Music): A CD/DVD souvenir of the ex-Beatle's performance earlier this year at New York's new CitiField.
Steve Morse Band, "Out Standing in Their Field" (Eagle Rock): The Dixie Dregs and Kansas veteran takes a break from his normal duties in Deep Purple to make some music with his own group.
OneRepublic, "Waking Up" (Mosley/Geffen): The sophomore outing by the Denver group whose frontman, Ryan "Alias" Tedder, has written hits for Leona Lewis, Beyonce, Jordin Sparks and a slew of other pop acts.
Katy Perry, "MTV: Unplugged" (Capitol): The "I Kissed a Girl" singer-songwriter's stripped-down CD/DVD set is a stop-gap while she works on a follow-up to her multiplatinum "One of the Boys" album.
Rakim, "The Seventh Seal" (Ra/Tuscan Villa/SMC): Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss and Styles P are among the guests featured on the rapper's first set of new material in nearly a decade.
Dave Rawlings Machine, "A Friend of a Friend" (Acony): Gillian Welch's longtime musical partner steps out on his own with help from Welch and members of the Old Crow Medicine Show, who he's produced.
Them Crooked Vultures, "Them Crooked Vultures" (DGC/Interscope): The debut recorded outing by the "supergroup" trio of Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme clocks in with 66 minutes of mind-melting hard rock.
We Shot the Moon, "A Sliver Lining" (Afternoon): The piano-driven modern rock quartet's sophomore effort comes quickly behind 2008's "Fear and Love."
Robbie Williams, "Reality Killed the Video Star" (Astralwerks): The British singer and former Take That member recorded his latest album with hit-pedigreed producer Trevor Horn.
Dan Zanes and Friends, "76 Trombones" (Festival Five): Family music specialist Zanes turns his attention to Broadway this time with help from guests Carol Channing, Matthew Broderick and Father Goose.
New Holiday Titles: "A Fine Frenzy, "Oh Blue Christmas" (Virgin)
From The Vaults: Anberlin, "Blueprints For City Friendships: The Anberlin Anthology" (Tooth & Nail); David Bowie, "Space Oddity: 40th Anniversary Edition" (Virgin/EMI); Sheryl Crow, "Tuesday Night Music Club: Deluxe Edition" (A&M/UMe); The Doors, "Live in New York" (Bright Midnight/Rhino); Fall Out Boy, "Believers Never Die: Greatest Hits" (Island); Janet Jackson, "Number Ones" (A&M/UMe); Keane, "Hopes and Fears: Deluxe Edition" (Interscope); Kraftwerk, "The Catalogue" (Astralwerks); Motley Crue, "Greatest Hits" (Eleven Seven); Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, "The Live Anthology"
New Music DVDs: Earth, Wind & Fire, "Live at Montreux 1997" (Eagle Rock Blu-ray); Billy Idol, "In Super Overdrive Live" (Eagle Rock DVD and Blu-ray); Kings of Leon, "Live at the O2 London" (RCA); Rolling Stones, "Live at the Max (UMG/S2BN); Santana, "Blues at Montreux" (Eagle Rock Blu-ray); Various Artists, "Spectacle: Elvis Costello With..." (MVD)
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