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The Friday Morning Listen: John Mayer

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First posted on Mark Is Cranky:

    I rock so poorly.

    Uhmm…my love, and my skill, is being smooth.

So begins Liane Hansen’s interview with pop singer-songwriter John Mayer.

You might think that this is yet another attempt to get Mayer-haters forehead veins to throb extra hard this morning. It’s not. If you haven’t been paying attention (or maybe have a life, and are unconcerned with such things) there’s been a little back ‘n forth going on concerning Mayer. It all started with Blogcritics own DJ Radiohead’s excellent tribute podcast to the late Elliott Smith. I made the mistake of admitting that I don’t ‘get’ Smith and would instead prefer to listen to John Mayer.

Hoooboy, much snarling ensued. Then the One Big Happy podcast tosses a small can ‘o gas onto the fire. Please, somebody reach for the fire extinguisher!

Does it have to be this way? Heck, I don’t know. Why we like or dislike things is a fairly mysterious process. I tend to have emotional reactions to music. I hear it, my cells all start pulling in one (or another) direction and I immediately know. Just this morning I switched on the Sirius and tuned in to the all-Springsteen channel “The Bridge”. They played his live version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped”. For whatever reason, the chorus of that song just gets to me. I literally well up as the chorus swells. Why?

I have no idea.

So I’ve listened to the Elliott Smith tribute five times. I can sense the author’s passion for the music…music that just does not speak to me. One thing I can say about it is that I tend to not respond to male voices that are soft, whispy and (supposedly) melancholy. I say ‘supposedly’ because my emotional reaction to the texture of the voice is to draw away and completely miss the emotion that I take it is supposed to be there. Obviously, it’s just me because just two days ago, I listened to Petra Haden and Bill Frisell. The first tune “Satellite” really caught my ear. Yea, it was written by Elliott Smith.

The irony of the Mayer interview is that he goes on to say that because he’s not a good rocker he couldn’t ever see releasing a record like that. I don’t know what that Mayer Trio record is going to sound like but from what I’ve read it’s a move (or an attempted move) away from ‘smooth’.

So did I have an emotional reaction to the music on this record. Sure I did. I immediately liked the way Mayer layered electric arpeggios on top of the acoustic guitar strumming. I was a little surprised at this because I’d read so much negative bluster about the guy. So much that I figured that there was nothing there. Yet I bought the album because I liked the vibe of “Neon” (the main riff remined me of a pop version of jazz bass-torturer Charlie Hunter) and Mayer’s unpretentious attitude in that interview. That was enough for me.

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About Mark Saleski

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    They say that music calms even the savage beast. So does good writing. This savage beast is calmed.

    This is really a terrific piece of writing (and not just the parts where you say nice things about me and my podcast).

    You are of course correct in that we all vibe to different things and the reasons for it are mysterious. I think your ‘reasoning’ for why you respond to one thing and not another makes a lot of sense. I tried listening to the interview… my Real Player at work wouldn’t do it. I’ll try it later.

    In the end… “there’s only you and me and we just disagree.” Very good piece.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    thank you sir.

  • Eric Olsen

    Mark, Mark Mark, so nice to return and see your essentially Markyness remains securely intact!

    Like DJR above, I really enjoyed the smooth ride of your thoughts and words, but I also happen to agree with your conclusions: yea Mayer, generally nay Smith.

    I think Mayer is one of those talents who will follow his muse and continue to surprise. I have now heard some remarkable and tough blues-rock guitar out of him that wasn’t even hinted at on Room For Squares or Heavier Things.

    The setting I like Smith best in was his punk band Heatmiser where the fey introspection was balanced with roaring guitars and storming tempos.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    We just disagree because DJ is clearly off his rocker, but yeah.

    Great writeup. I’ll admit I can’t quite explain why I like Mayer, but I do. And hearing him play live, well, when he lets loose and plays the blues, it’s good stuff.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    and see your essentially Markyness remains securely intact!

    i would like to state for the record that only eric olsen and my friend gene’s daughter savanah are allowed to address me as ‘marky’.

  • Eric Olsen

    And I was careful about that: didn’t directly call you “Marky,” just referred to your Marky-ness

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I tried to be nice. I really did. Look at comment #1. I TRIED.

    Why, Georgia, Why do they taunt me? They mock us in Topeka, Captain. They do not respect our authori-tah.

    I want to run through the halls of my high school. I want to scream at the top of my lungs.

    What do I want to scream? You’re killing me. Each and every one of you is twisting the knife in just a little deeper.

    “I’ll fake it through the day with some help from Johnny Walker Red,
    Send the poisoned rain down the drain to put bad thoughts in my head…”

    Of course it now occurs to me… I made a crucial mistake making this about Mayer VS Smith. As I am on record, it’s not a contest for me (apparently not for any of you either so touche!). Mayer is inadequate in his own rite regardless the artistic merit of any number of other superior artists.

    Just know… I will make my war against you all. I’m gonna fight them off. A Seven Nation Army couldn’t hold me back… oh, sorry… that’s Al and Monkey’s thread.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    heh! and our own mr. barger has on his website the sentence “sacred cows make the tastiest burgers”.

    which somehow applies here, mr. smith being the sacred cow of indie-dom.

  • Eric Olsen

    it all depends on which seven nations!

    I can see a fine songwriter in there, but Smith desultory mopiness really fucks with my chi

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Oh, so you’re quoting lyrics now? I don’t know if you want to start that.

    Besides, it’s three on one right here, which is hardly sporting. And then let’s compare album sales and realize that you don’t really want legions of Mayer-heads to descend and start questioning your masculinity and right to exist on the same earth with their beloved Johnny.

    It goes without saying that nearly all of these people will be teenaged girls, but then there’s my wife, too, and she’s… er… not a teenager.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I’m fat enough to be seven nations in one day.

    Smith’s incredible vocals and vocal arrangements as well as his gift as a musician and arranger gives me the option of enjoying his music on an ‘ear candy’ level as well as on the more detailed level where petty things such as lyrics are involved. I think this is most true of his later albums when he started to employ more instruments and also use of strings, etc.

    Smith may be guilty of being a little monochromatic in mood. I get the same thing from Reznor’s tortured soul bit or Robert Smith’s mopiness (just off the top of my head). Again, this is where the different styles Smith employs musically really helps me. I don’t feel like one of his albums is one giant downer because there are happy melodies disguising the hurt in the lyrics.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    and that’s where we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    where you hear incredible vocals, i hear incredible monochomaticism. to use our parents’ language, it all sounds the same to me.

  • DJRadiohead

    Phillip, any man who refers to candy lips and a bubblegum tongue ought not even try questioning anyone’s masculinity. Let them question me. I got something for all the ladies (please, please let the wife to whom I am married not read this thread!).

    Elliott might have a clumsy turn of phrase here and there but I am VERY comfortable putting Smith’s lyrics on the table versus Mayer’s.

    Anyone dense enough to suggest to me commercial success and artistic merit are linked (which would in all likelihood be the aforementioned teenage girls) will find they need more than a 3-1 ratio to take me on. I was a MasterDebator!

    My armies will be unleashed! Let them come. They will be smote! It’s a Friday. I am going to Tuscaloosa to see my undefeated Tide vanquish the first of two Tiger teams to the South. My vengeance shalt be fierce and I am mighty.

    Just keep the wife to whom I am married and Herself off this thread and I should be fine. =)

  • DJRadiohead

    And fair enough, Mark (y), although I think Mayer’s prepubescent Dave Matthews vocal style lacks some substance and variety. I think his voice will really get exposed on his attempt at blues. Maybe he’s enough of a guitarist to mask what I believe will be tremendous vocal shortcomings.

    One of the areas Elliott’s voice really got it done for me was when he would overdub himself and create the lush harmonies. The (forgive me) Beatlesesque-ness of those harmonies really nailed it for me. I think the two songs from “XO” (“Tomorrow Tomorrow” and “Sweet Adeline” are the best examples I included on the podcast). There are some songs, ones I didn’t play, where his voice could get too wispy for me so I can understand your feelings there. On balance (obviously) I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago where Elliott is concerned.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    yes, i heard that in those songs…though at the time what i thought to myself was “hmmm, sounds like when John Lennon sang ‘I’m So Tired’…i’d rather listen to Lennon”

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    I don’t know how to track down your wife, but I’m gonna point my wife to this very page later today. :-P

    Bah to the suggestion of a link between artistic merit and commercial success. My point there was just that you’re biting off more than you can chew. These people, they won’t see reason!

    As far as candy lips and bubblegum tongues go, are you suggesting that your wife isn’t sweet like honey, making you feel funny?

    I’ve gotta find an email somewhere…

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Phillip, I didn’t think you were making that argument. Biting off more than I can chew? I’m not afraid. Besides, you saw how I handled that Bon Jovi board! =)

    Mark: A lot of people feel similarly when they hear an artist wear influences on their sleeves. I can understand it. Obviously it’s just not going to happen with you and Elliott but you have given it a more than fair chance having listened to the podcast so many times. As I type this I am thinking of a lot of great songs I didn’t play in the cast that would “surely” convert you. Sometimes, you just have to know when to let go. I have tried letting Elliott and Mayer go. But just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

  • Eric Olsen

    leather and lace, magnet and steel, you picked a fine to leave me you bitch

  • DJRadiohead

    you picked a fine time to leave me Lucille with 99 hungry children and a cop in the field… wait, I know I missed something here.

  • Eric Olsen

    back before Kenny was distracted by chicken

  • Guppusmaximus

    Well Done Mark… But, ofcourse I always have an opinion :)

    “Why we like or dislike things is a fairly mysterious process….”

    Not really. For music it comes down to wether you actually play an instrument or just enjoy listening to music. For the musicians… It’s an educated ear that provides an insight on how the artist is performing the piece, so there will be an underlying structure that is creating the emotional connection. Understanding that alot of the artists are in fact mediocre in their ability to communicate that emotion or choosing to take shortcuts in their playing style is why I(Perhaps some people too) don’t like mainstream artists.

  • Guppusmaximus

    ….. As for John Mayer…. He’s just a F*cking hack…:)

  • Eric Olsen

    yes, but what about the mainstream artists, who clearly have the musical acumen of which you speak, liking themselves?

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    Understanding that alot of the artists are in fact mediocre in their ability to communicate that emotion or choosing to take shortcuts in their playing style is why I(Perhaps some people too) don’t like mainstream artists.

    nice conjecture.

    i have played guitar for twenty years and studied jazz improvization for five or six of those years.

    i know how music is constructed.

    when i listen to music, i do NOT think technically.

  • Eric Olsen

    and if this were universally the case, then the most complicated music would always be the “best”

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Exactly, Eric. Phillip has been trying to convince me forever that John Mayer can really play the guitar. Maybe he can. My response has always been, “So can Yngwie Malmsteen.” I ain’t listening to Yngwie. Can he play incredibly complex parts at the speed of light? You betcha. Is it worth hearing? Not so much. Complex music can be great music but the fact it is complex probably is not the reason the music is great.

    Oh, and that chicken is pretty boss.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    exactly. by that logic, i should throw out all of my Ramones records.

    screw that!

  • Guppusmaximus

    Yes, the Difference is that Yngwie was a pioneer,The Minor scale(classical?) done on Electric Guitar, and John Mayer is still a hack….

    “i have played guitar for twenty years and studied jazz improvization for five or six of those years.

    i know how music is constructed.

    when i listen to music, i do NOT think technically….”

    Yes, But, Mark you do have the ability which someone who hasn’t studied music does not… Wether you choose to, well, that’s your choice.
    I’ve played drums for 20 years, haven’t studied jazz improvisation and all I thrive on is listening to complex music….technically.

    “Complex music can be great music but the fact it is complex probably is not the reason the music is great.”

    *Huh?* I beg to differ…Mozart,Bethoven,etc.. Were the greats and were complex. Music that will stand the test of time…The Ramones were complex for their time in one manner…Speed. That’s what makes them great! Yngwie was great for his virtuoso combined with his speed.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    sounds like a circular argument to me.

    i’m not choosing to not listen technically, the idea of analyzing a piece of music never enters my mind.

    seriously.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    But DJ, when I say Johnny can really play, I don’t mean in a technically-adept way, I mean the boy plays like he can feel. Nobody would ever suggest that he’s the fastest, or whatever, but he connects.

    Just not on his two pop albums. :-(

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    hey, when the heck is herself gonna chime in here?!

  • ClubhouseCancer

    The idea that only someone who is trained in musical performance or composition is fit to “truly” judge pop music is a load of self-aggrandising crap.

    “Well, of course you don’t get Feldsberg Flozzlewood, but believe me, if you played oboe you’d understand how awesome he is.”

  • Mary K. Williams

    Who is John Mayer? : )~

  • Guppusmaximus

    “i have played guitar for twenty years and studied jazz improvization for five or six of those years.”

    And you never wanted to figure out how someone plays a song? I’m not criticizing you Mark… It’s just that for me, as a drummer, analyzing the work of my idols is pure enjoyment. Even the work of guitarists,bassists,vocalists…To me, that is one of the major parts of music. When a musical instrument becomes an extension of your soul then you truly can appreciate when someone else has that passion…

    I would’ve respected John Mayer if he came out with his trio first instead of that worthless pop crap…

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    sure, i’ve wanted to figure out how to play a song…and only then do i start deconstructing it into its musical parts (scales, modes, etc….)

    when listening this never happens.

    as far as it being ‘worthless pop crap’, i enjoyed it immensely on the way to work, and then again after i got here.

  • Eric Olsen

    use of the term “pop” dismissively says much more about the speaker than the music

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Oh, DJ, I think you got told!

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Got told? Got told what?

    I think this battle got taken over by Guppusmaximus and Saleski. I’m waiting for someone to come back at me.

    Oh… as to Yngwie v Mayer. I think they’re both wanks. Malmsteen equates speed playing with music. Mayer… well… I have heard him in interviews and he sounds like he’s going to try and fuse SRV with Hendrix. He might be good at it. I think I should wait to speak to that until I’ve heard his playing. At this point, I have only heard his pop crap.

    And I agree with EO. Pop music and bad music don’t have to be synonymous. They just are too often.

  • Guppusmaximus

    I think I should’ve made myself alittle more clear… I don’t think Pop is crap.I do feel that people don’t know what pop is anymore and I do agree that alot of music nowadays in that catagory is crap including John Mayer’s attempt…

    Well, Mark, I guess I will agree to disagree…
    Analyzing music is an important part to understanding it. I still appreciate music for what it is but I am grateful that I have gained a trained ear to be able to sort through alot of garbage…(Especially John Mayer)

    As for Yngwie vs. Mayer…(LOL) Wether you consider speed an actual talent or not,Mr. Malmsteen is still light years ahead in his skill than Mr. Mayer, even if you slowed him down.
    Though, I would like to see John Mayer pull off any of either SRV or Hendrix’s work (with feeling..lol) before I could ever fathom him fusing those 2 styles together…*Smirk*

    Again, his attempt at this fusion prior to his shallow releases would’ve given him more credibility as a musician instead of a pop star… (I just don’t think he can pull it off)

  • Eric Olsen

    Gup, I agree there is nothing wrong with approaching music analytically, or from any other angle/door. That is among its many wonders

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    eo sez: use of the term “pop” dismissively says much more about the speaker than the music

    this is exactly right.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Mark

    Pop is certainly a legit descriptive term, although it is so broad as to be almost meaningless in some contexts, but when one uses “pop” to mean “unworthy” or “illegitimate” it becomes reflexive

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    What Guppusmaximus is getting at in comment #39 is relevant not just to music but to pretty much every other art form as well. Art is made up of two components, the skill part, which consists of mastery of one’s tools, and the art part, which is much harder to define, much more subjective, and much more likely to engender disagreement among observers. I think the important point is that technical mastery by itself does not make art – there are people in every field of artistic endeavor who are technically skilled but devoid of emotional content, and artists who might not be the best technically who can knock you flat on your ass with an emotional punch. An artist who can deliver the emotional content can afford to be less proficient technically than the performing genius who has skill but little else to offer.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Sorry, DJ, I guess it was Guppus that got told. I should read more carefully. :-)

  • Guppusmaximus

    Hey DJ,
    Do you think philip is out of his league here? Is that why he is acting like a 7y/o instigator?

    Lisa,

    Very nice obvservation… Though I do feel that the greats had both Mastery and soul.

    If you choose to master your tools without any reflection on your soul,meaning,if you play music just to master the job and don’t personalize it, well, it most definately will sound that way. In my honest opinion…. I feel any great musicians were the ones who had to master their instrument in order to communicate their feelings and I think when you don’t have any experience playing an instrument you will never truely understand any piece of work. It’s the same thing as learning a new language and once you can communicate your emotions flawlessly that’s when everything falls into place.

    Eric,
    I understand where you are coming from and you always make excellent points.

    Music isn’t a wonder or mystery to me anymore because it’s always a relationship between people. In fact, to say John Mayer is the reason why his music is good(not to me)would be turning a blind eye to the people who help him create that music unless it’s a solo piece… It’s about finding the right people to connect with. When you find people who have the mastery to communicate, it actually pushes you to futher develop your own skills. That’s the truest love of music and when a band can communicate a single emotion or many emotions with accuracy than that transcends time… I guess when I say that I analyze music, it really means that I am actually listening and hearing what the composer(s) communicating and I find that alot of mainstream artists exploit many emotions without accuracy just to “cash in”….

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I think Phillip and Mark are instigators, but I doubt either of them are 7 years old anymore. =)

    I think Lisa hits this one on the head in relation to the art and the craft of musicianship (or other artistic endeavors). Emotionally, Mayer leaves me flat. Sonically he does, too. From a technical standpoint I am not an expert but rather an informed amateur. I can’t play a lick but I love guitar music and have listened to a lot so I think to a small extent I can differentiate between the technically good and technically bad- again, to some extent. I haven’t gotten to hear Mayer let loose on guitar yet… I do plan on hearing his trio out of curiosity and I guess now a sense of fairness after having blasted the guy as often as I have.

    And I agree again about pop. Pop at its best is amazing and wonderful and there is such a a thing as pop at its best. It is unfortunate due to the current state of music that pop has now become a derogatory term. It does not have to be.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    somewhat ironically, i wrote something a while back that attempts to describe my reactions to music as i listen.

    it was called Musical Resonance.

    ironic, a little, because it used a Rush song as an example. Rush being a band that fans tend to gush over because of the musical complexity (which i don’t really give a hoot about).

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Guppus, in fact, it was John Mayer working solo (singing, songwriting, and playing) that convinced me to check out his albums. He definitely works with some great musicians when touring and when featured on their albums, but a decent portion of his second album was also him, by himself, layering tracks on a Mac.