We Got the Beat
Norah Jones, "The Fall" (Blue Note)
John Mayer, "Battle Studies" (Columbia)
Slightly less than eight years ago about 850 or so lucky Houstonians had an unknown Norah Jones and John Mayer all to themselves. The two budding solo acts were a double-bill at Numbers in Montrose and, even together, didn’t quite have the place filled to capacity.
Since that evening Jones and Mayer, whose paths may have never crossed again after passing each other in the graffiti-stained backstage room on Westheimer, have been forever linked in my mind. The simultaneous release of Jones’ latest album, "The Fall," and Mayer’s new guitar epic, "Battle Studies," does nothing to sever the tie that binds them.
It’s not that their music is so similar. It’s quite the opposite, actually.
Jones’ career to this point has largely focused on piano ballads and romantic torch songs that have revived the contemporary adult slow dance. Mayer, meanwhile, has spent the better part of the last decade establishing himself as the next great white blues guitar hope on stage (with all due respect to Stevie Ray Vaughan), even as he carves out a growing list of sensual easy-rock swoons for the radio.
Their link is that Jones, 30, and Mayer, 32 rose from pre-spotlight music prodigies into full-fledged superstars together before our eyes. And not so coincidentally, both "The Fall" and "Battle Studies" show a level of individuality and distinct character that comes from taking a solid hold on the reigns of their careers.
One need only to look at the cover of "The Fall" to understand that this is not the same shy Jones, posed behind a baby grand that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in videos for past hits "Don’t Know Why" and "Thinking About You." Dressed in a vintage gown, top hat and posing with a St. Bernard at her side, one almost doesn’t realize that the long, lush hair that defined her American-Bengali Indian beauty has been shorn above the shoulders.
The heft of that hair is symbolic of the weight of artistic expectations that Jones has carried around since she carried away an armful of Grammys (including album of the year) for "Come Away With Me" in 2003.
For "The Fall" Jones has completely flipped the script. Rather than chasing past glories, she has gone looking for a new cache of tuneful riches. She recruited a band of bangers and crashers that usually back up rockers like R.E.M., Beck and Elvis Costello and went to work on a collection of songs that might not produce Top 40 hits, but that she clearly enjoys playing.
First single “Chasing Pirates,” has a kicky chord shuffle reminiscent of the steel drum island themes often favored by Jimmy Buffet. The unexpected beat and peculiar, dreamy lyrics travel the same seas that gave Joni Mitchell’s personality so much definition at her 60s and 70s best.
Best of all, "The Fall" gets Jones off the piano bench and out strumming a guitar and stomping out the beat on "It’s Gonna Be" or simply standing upstage with a microphone to breath the bluesy "Light As A Feather." This may not end up being the Grammy-awarded, chart-topping success of "Come Away With Me," but it could be something much more genuine.
We may have finally met the real, grown-up, Norah Jones.
John Mayer is tired of singing sweet-nothings on the sidelines as well. "Battle Studies" succinctly describes Mayer’s process for conjuring his fourth studio album. He’s been watching and studying at some of the greatest guitarists and lead men in music.
Now, it is Mayer’s turn to rock.
He pays tribute to blues in a rollicking version of Robert Johnson’s "Crossroads" as he remembers it interpreted by Cream and hits new dramatic anthem heights on “Heartbreak Warfare.” Mayer even gets soulful with the latest superstar flavor of the month, Taylor Swift, on "Half Of My Heart."
But the enduring tongue-in-cheek combination of playfulness and independence on "Battle Studies" shows up in the opening lines of his acoustic first single, "Who Says."
"Who says I can’t get stoned? Turn off the lights and the telephone. Me in my house alone? Who says I can’t get stoned?
Who says I can’t be free? From all of the things that I used to be. Rewrite my history. Who says I can’t be free?"
In two lines, Mayer intertwines the humor and talent that makes his fans love him along with the bit of rebellion that might just keep him sane enough to stay on stage for many years to come.
And when he or Jones come back to Houston in support of these new works, you can bet it will be on a stage much bigger than Numbers and – unfortunately - not together.