Saturday, September 8, 2012

John Mayer - The Complete 2012 Performances Collection

Columbia Records, 2012
3.5 Stars 

Back in May, John Mayer delivered one of the best albums of the year (and one of his best to date) with Born & Raised. A couple months later, it remains an exquisite collection of infectious folk rock (“Queen of California”) and dusky alt-country (“Shadow Days,” the title track), and an indelible left turn for one of pop music’s most talented and consistent stars. True to form, Mayer landed the number one spot on the Billboard charts after a solid first week of sales, but the victory came with a bittersweet aftertaste: for the first time in his career, Mayer wasn’t able to ride out and meet his fans. Sidelined by a vocal condition called granuloma, the 34 year old guitar hero was forced to cancel the entirety of his summer tour, taking him away from the fans and the songs during what was arguably the creative peak of his career.

Mayer clearly felt the pain. Despite a vocal surgery looming (his second in less than a year), he couldn’t stay away from the music. Immediately following the release of Born & Raised, Mayer set a wildfire of rumors by commenting that he might just go ahead and begin work on the follow-up, and while the chances of him making good on those speculations and finishing an album by next summer seem doubtful now, he’s done the next best thing: released an EP before this summer even runs out. That EP, titled in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner as The Complete 2012 Performances Collection, features acoustic renditions of four of the tunes from Born & Raised, plus a previously unreleased b-side. And while this may not seem like anything to write home about in a day and age where bands release entire acoustic renderings of their albums, Mayer shows here that, even vocally impaired and left to his own devices in the studio, he’s still a force to be reckoned with.

Certainly, a full unplugged re-imagining of Born & Raised would have been even more welcome, but what we get here are four exquisitely re-imagined gems that, at worst, offer an interesting perspective on their more full-bodied counterparts, and at best, surpass them. Fitting into the former category is “Speak to Me,” already the original record’s weakest song, and one whose acoustic arrangement had little need for being stripped down further. Mayer speeds up the tempo here, his voice sounding loose, raspy, and rough. It’s an interesting take, but the re-arrangement misses the gorgeous backup vocals of the original, and ultimately comes across as a glorified demo. Slightly better is “Shadow Days,” which doesn’t thrive the same way it does on record (due mostly to the lack of steel guitar), but which is more than adequate nonetheless.

The treasures come with the other three tracks, however. Opener “Something Like Olivia” is a revelation in acoustic format, sporting an “Into the Mystic”-esque guitar part and a spontaneous, jazzy feel that allows Mayer to show off his chops. We often get to hear him wailing away on his electric, but up to this point, his acoustic moments have been relegated to balladry or to the adventurous “opening set” from 2008’s Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles. The songs here are very much in the vein of the latter, and just as that set gave deep cuts a chance to shine (the definitive recording of “Neon” can be found there), this one allows “Olivia” to reach new heights. “Queen of California” is another home run: the instrumentation translates fantastically, bringing out a countrified twang that the original, with its rousing guitar solo, didn’t really have. Mayer also cleverly rewrites the vocal melody, avoiding the higher notes and giving the song a dark edge that the sun-drenched album version lacked. As for the b-side, “Go Easy on Me” is a pleasant piece of traditional folk music, and while it’s not too hard to see why it didn’t make the record, it’s an undeniably gorgeous extra with some dependably nice guitar work and a Dylan-ish harmonica solo.

Mayer has come a long way in the past few years, working to shed his bad reputation and forced into a humbling situation with his vocal issue. Luckily for us, the music has only benefited from the change, and with this collection, it’s clear just how much the man’s fans mean to him. These five songs won’t make up for the canceled shows or satisfy all of the would-be ticket buyers, but it’s nice to know that Mayer is trying to make things right. The Complete 2012 Performances Collection is the sound of a guy who has no greater desire than to be out on the road, playing his songs, baring his soul, and making lots of other people happy. It’s little more than a supplement, but even with a handful of songs and half a voice, Mayer is still better than most of his contemporaries.

No comments:

Post a Comment