John Mayer PARADISE VALLEY
Singer-guitarist John Mayer follows up his rootsy and introspective 2012 album, “Born and Raised,” with another often down-home, Don Was-produced project, “Paradise Valley.”
Like its 2012 predecessor, “Paradise Valley” contains a laid-back vibe and largely quiet songs performed with minimal instrumentation. It’s also the first album recorded by the singer after he experienced career-threatening tissue inflammation on his vocal cords. The condition, granuloma, led to canceled tour dates, surgery and four months of prescribed silence.
Earlier in his career, forced simulation of the husky tones of old blues men may not have been good for those vocal cords.
Now recovered, back in the studio and the road, Mayer takes it easy with his vocals in “Paradise Valley.” He sings softly, as if he’s in an intimate listening room.
Opening track “Wildfire” is a joyful song about a swiftly blooming relationship, combining a section of clapping hands and twanging guitar with another section that’s more breezy, contemporary rhythm-and-blues.
Mayer and Was bring some heavy hitters in for “Dear Marie,” keyboardist Chuck Leavell (The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Allman Brothers) and pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin (Sting, Mark Knopfler, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Shania Twain). With guys like that on deck, “Dear Marie” lifts easily from its acoustic guitar-picked intro to a louder, spirited jam.
Leavell returns for “Paper Doll,” which features more of Mayer’s light vocals plus his bubbling Afro-pop influenced electric guitar patterns.
Mayer wrote the album’s songs with the exception of “Call Me the Breeze,” composed by the late J.J. Cale and popularized by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Aaron Sterling’s drums drive “Breeze” forward while Mayer plays an electric guitar solo that owes much to blues star B.B. King.
The “Paradise Valley” song that’s getting special attention is, of course, Mayer’s duet with pop star Katy Perry, his girlfriend. Singing their respective verses in “Who You Love,” the couple sounds very comfortable together amidst the biggest production on the album. Perry expresses her delight about being with him. Mayer says he wants to stay.
Frank Ocean, a newly risen pop and R&B star from New Orleans, is the album’s other guest vocalist, singing a spare refrain of opening song “Wildfire.”
“You’re No One ’Til Someone Lets You Down,” featuring more pedal steel from Franklin, is the record’s most countrified song, while “On the Way Home” enters the neo-Celtic folk song realm that Mumford & Sons has of late claimed. But Mayer does the latter very well indeed. And having recovered from his health challenges, “Paradise Valley” shows he’s a songwriter and musician with much more to say.
Honey Island Swamp Band CANE SUGAR
New Orleans’ Honey Island Swamp Band, which performs Aug. 30 at Tipitina’s, follows roots-rock traditions extending to Lowell George and Little Feat, the Allman Brothers Band, the Band and such local acts as the Radiators and the subdudes.
Blues, country, the soul of Memphis and Muscle Shoals and, naturally, New Orleans’ R&B, funk and jazz, all sweeten the Honey Island Swamp Band pot.
“Cane Sugar,” the third album from the band and its first to get national distribution, features 12 original songs, most of them written by Honey Island principal singer-songwriters Aaron Wilkinson and Chris Mulé.
The band gets invaluable local collaboration from its Grammy-winning, New Orleans-residing British producer, John Porter (Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Taj Mahal). Many guests from the New Orleans music community contribute, too, including keyboardist Jon Cleary, sousaphone player Kirk Joseph and vocalist Gina Brown. And a special guest from Texas, Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson’s band), plays his unmistakable harmonica.
Wilkinson leads the soulful, slide-guitar and horns-touched Southern rock of “Change My Ways.” The influence of the Allman Brothers and Bobbie Robertson and the Band surface in the album’s Mulé-penned title song, “Cane Sugar.” The band moves to acoustic country-blues with “Just Another Fool,” co-written by Wilkinson and Mulé with Porter and singer-guitarist John Mooney.
The 12-track album ends strongly with “Strangers,” a Southern soul-rock song that especially recalls the New Orleans bands that are the Honey Island Swamp Band’s most obvious ancestors, the Radiators and the subdudes. Honey Island Swamp men Wilkinson, Mulé, bassist Sam Price, drummer Garland Paul and keyboardist Trevor Brooks are worthy descendants.
Britney Spears THE ESSENTIAL BRITANY SPEARS
Britney Spears was a 16-year-old singer and dancer from Kentwood when her popularity exploded in late 1998 with the release of her debut single, “ … Baby One More Time,” and its striking music video.
A former cast member of that star-making machine, “The New Mickey Mouse Club” (Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Keri Russell were on the show, too), Spears sang with a shallow, chirpy sound, but then the same can be said of many girls and young women then and now. Spears nevertheless was, from the beginning, a fine actress in song, capable of expressing emotion, vulnerability, longing and wonder of the kind her young female fans easily identified with.
Swedish songwriter-producer Max Martin crafted “ … Baby One More Time,” ensuring its appeal with seductive hooks. It didn’t matter that Spears-Martin follow-ups “You Drive Me Crazy” and “Oops! … I Did It Again” were essentially “Baby” replicates. They, too, were irresistible.
Spears’ staying power proved greater than many imagined. She would not be a one-hit wonder.
Subsequent recordings, such as the steamy, Neptunes-produced “I’m A Slave 4 U” and “Boys,” unveiled the merely simmering sexuality of the early hits.
Spears veered into generic electronic dance music as the 2000s moved on. She also made headlines with a much-photographed meltdown in 2007. Which makes her 2008 comeback all the more impressive. A Spears and Martin reunion yielded another run of No. 1 and Top 10 hits.