Grade: C+ |
The evening I first heard the name Jason Mraz, I was “chillin’ like ice cream fillin'” at the Blue Bar in Decatur, checking out one of my favorite local artists, Daniel Lee. After Daniel wrapped up his usual inspiring set, he settled in with us to sort through the world’s problems. The topic of music inevitably came up, and I floated him my perennial favorite question, “so who are you listening to these days?” His eyes lit up like a 4-year-old spotting the tree on Christmas morning. “Mraz” is all he could say. This was back in 2002, a couple month before Waiting for My Rocket to Come would launch off the shelves, making him a verifiable household name, supported by pop anthems like “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry).” His synthesis of pop ballads flavored with hip-hop sensibilities and clever wordplay burrowed him a niche in the sensitive singer-songwriter revival John Mayer sparked. Rocket was a daring effort, flush with sharp artistry, a comfort in his craft, and enough green remaining on him to make it interesting. Now he returns with Mr. A-Z. Is this the same sweet elixir that Rocket was or just day old alphabet soup?
Though it has its moments, it’s more like rice cakes than a musical double decker sundae. He opens with the uncharacteristic “Life is Wonderful.” It is airy and atmospheric, occasionally punctuating the sentence with a blunt drum blast. The first single “Wordplay” is next in line, bringing back the familiar Speedy Gonzales talking style while assembling rhythmic ear seduction. It’s as light as cotton candy, polished to a radio pleasing shine, yet it seems to lack that ease of prior gems like “You and I Both.” Several tracks prove very sketchy. “Mr. Curiosity” seems Mraz’s excuse to grease his falsetto. There is one point in the song an opera singer breaks out her chops. As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t let stray opera singers loose in your songs even if that singer turns out to be Mraz himself. Nothing good can come of that. Though it is quite catchy, “Geek in the Pink” sounds like Mraz is ripping off the Backstreet Boys greatest hits — now if that’s not an oxymoron. Just because, at times, you get lumped into the same category as boy bands, doesn’t mean you have to fan those flames.
This album is best when he stops trying to be Mraz, and let’s go. “Bella Luna” is a quiet French lounge tune with succulent guitars and soothing vocal melodies sliding from his tongue. Its manner is very reminiscent of “Tonight, Not Again” and works so nicely. “Plane” is another interesting track. The chorus can get repetitive, but the remaining elements are very compelling with its sweeping orchestration. The best song of the collection has to be “Please Don’t Tell Her.” This brings all the elements together to form a catchy, artistically conscious song that really has depth and feeling to it. This is the first time on the album we see the overwhelming energy and life that was smeared all over his debut album. The final salvo, “Song for a Friend” seems to be the perfect metaphor for this album as a whole. A decent song that isn’t anything to write home to mom about, suddenly seven minutes into the song it sparks to life, sounding grandiose, magical and inspired. The problem is our interest has already been beaten too badly to really grab hold.
It’s hard to see Mr. A-Z as anything other than the dreaded sophomore slump. I have a new theory on the pesky condition that afflicts so many promising artists. For mere pennies a day, you can save these poor troubadours from sinking back into the obscurity of playing on the same bill with Dave Matthews cover bands. Sorry, just having a Sally Struthers moment. If you are a struggling artist working for years to try to get that first album out, you’ve probably built up quite a catalog of tunes to sift through to form that sparkling debut. That material is fairly sharp since you are hungry (figuratively and literally speaking) and have that undying passion for the music. Then, you hit it big; visit Carson Daily on TRL, tour until you detest every song in your catalog, then its time to trudge back into the studio to whip up the magic again. Maybe you wrote a couple songs on the road, but you have nothing to draw on like that first one. Label is breathing down your neck to get something out to strike while the iron is hot and bam — lackluster second album hits the store shelves. It’s just a theory of course or as Matt LeBlanc said on Friends “There’s a lot of theories that didn’t pan out. The lone gunman. Communism. Geometry.”
Mr. A-Z turns out to be a spotty fellow. There are certainly some looks that make this worth the price of admission, but the litter of skipper tracks is worn like sores all over this album. We need more of the heart and soul that made Live at Java Joe’s such an enticing introduction. We need that energy and fun that made Waiting for My Rocket an addiction disk. In other words, it needs Mraz to get back in touch with the feisty curbside prophet stirring inside of him.
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