Monday, November 27, 2006

CD Review: Continuum

"Continuum," the new album by John Mayer, is definitely his blackest solo album yet. There is a strong rhythm & blues current running through these songs. While the same thematic elements that launched his career are here - tangled love affairs, a reluctant acceptance of adulthood, neuroses and nostalgia - this is a stripped, pared-down disc that presents him at his best. Obviously, I love it.

I missed his blues moment a couple years ago, but the guitar licks, relaxed pace, and easy tempo of the album demonstrate that sensibility. He's working his falsetto a lot more, layering his vocals more often. Listening to the album, I could hear traces of James Taylor, D'Angelo, Jimmy Buffett, and (excuse me, but it's true) Justin Timberlake. Others can hear Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye in there, and that's great, but there are a few transcendant moments when he is right up there with the some of the best of today's R&B: the aforementioned D'Angelo, as well as Van Hunt. Seriously. If his last solo project, "Heavier Things," went a little heavy on the production, with horns and synthesizers and studio tricks aplenty, this album seems quieter, more mellow, more simple. One could imagine hearing a band run through it on a tiny club stage, and it would sound mostly the same.

The come hither song, "I can't trust myself (with loving you)" made me move the way I only do when I'm trying to seduce someone. On other tracks ("Vultures," "Belief") I was singing the chorus and trying to blacken it up a bit with some ad libs and some soul. "Heart of life" presents a simple and optimistic ditty that reminded me of James Taylor at his catchiest and most uplifting - this is a song I would teach my child to sing. There is a suite of bluesy ballads kissing off an unfortunate ex-lover (notably "I'm gonna find another you") that reveals his musical and vocal chops. Of course, I can't stand the current single "Waiting for the world to change," which I find annoying and preachy. But it's all uphill from there.

He continues his fight against growing up with "Stop this train," which is a great and ultimately touching song, relaying a dialogue between him and his father. He has made such a niche for himself with these quarter life crisis anthems ("Why Georgia," "No such thing," "Clarity" (the namesake of this blog) and others). I love them, believe me, and I plan my fits of weeping and journaling around them, but is this going to make sense when he's playing Wolf Trap in thirty years? Will we remember what the hell he's singing about?

As always, his lyrics are intelligent and warm and clever. Although John Mayer kind of seems cocky and sometimes obnoxious, and has let his hair grow to an unfortunate length, he can still deliver the goods. This is a CD to wallow in. I can't wait to learn the words. Hearing the album on the bus from DC for the first time, I was struck by how much it had won me over with just one listen. This is a strong, unified work, and I'm happy for Mr. Mayer, and I'm happy that I have received another dose of his music. For the last few years he has granted me a partial soundtrack to my young adulthood, and I am just thankful that my life is in rough parallel to his (in a way).

This is a beautiful album, and you should hear it.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Faux Thanksgiving 2006

Last night we celebrated our first ever Faux Thanksgiving - a holiday extravaganza that was so awesome, and required so much of our oven and stove, that our carbon monoxide alarm started shrieking obnoxiously the entire afternoon, and we eventually had to just take the batteries out. Since we all woke up alive, it worked out well. Anyways, the food was amazing, the company was great, and we sealed off the night with a few rousing rounds of Taboo. Here are the pictures:

L with our 11-pound masterpiece. It took a day and a half to prepare, but it was one of the best turkeys I have ever eaten.

The man of the house carving the turkey, which worked out well sometimes and less well at other times (see the next picture).

The spread, clockwise from top left: yams with marshmallow, two kinds of cornbread, an impish John, mashed potatoes (my specialty, and a true highlight of the meal), stuffing, asparagus, turkey, cranberries...

...Cous cous, salad, Lillian's grandma's jello salad (very different from the Dunn and Hall family jello salads, as we learned). And, finally, a few photos of the diners. Hopefully this will be the first of many Faux Thanksgivings to come.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Song review: "I can't tell you why"

Everyone who knows me, including the three of you who might read this post, understand the importance to me of mid-90s R&B. I already feel nostalgic for that period from roughly 93-98, the heyday of acts like Blackstreet, Joe, Monica, R. Kelly, Brandy, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Aaliyah, and all the rest. Hearing the sounds of New Jack Swing brings back evocative memories of high school, my old Volvo, the confidence and confusion of adolescence. I loved it. Just in writing these last couple of sentences I have added more names to the roster of singers I listed three sentences ago - the list just won't stop.

I've been thinking about this particular musical era frequently. I found an iTunes playlist of 90s R&B that literally made me ache. The memories were overwhelming. Throughout my twenties, though, before the advent of the internet, two songs haunted me well past the end of their days on the radio: Aaliyah's "At your best" and Brownstone's "I can't tell you why." Both were remakes of older songs, both were slow but very distinctive and representative of a certain time and place. Aaliyah had quite a career until her tragic death in the summer of 2001, but Brownstone kind of fell off the map soon after this track. But I've been singing these two ditties in the shower for a decade, honest to God, and they both strike some great notes of love and melancholy and devotion.

Well, I caught up with "At your best" a couple years ago, and it was nearly as good as I remembered. And although I searched for it sporadically on iTunes and other filesharing sites, I never came across "I can't tell you why" - until tonight. I stumbled across it on YouTube and I was thrilled to hear it - I honestly haven't heard it since before the turn of the millennium. The damnedest part is that I remembered all of it - the words, the ad libs, the background vocals. The video is a little cheesy, definitly reflective of an urban aesthetic well past its expiration date, but there's still something magical (can I say magical? Yeah, roll with it) about the song. I am very thankful to have rediscovered it once again. Anyways, here it is, for your enjoyment.

Monday, November 06, 2006

State update: Connecticut

I spent the weekend in Connecticut, and in case you are wondering how things are there, I can tell you that Connecticut is: brisk. Not quite cold, definitely not warm, but very zippy and autumnal and worthy of a jacket and scarf. The leaves are mostly down, with a carpet of bright reds and yellows on the ground, and gray solemn tree branches poking into the sky. The sun sets quickly over the mountains there and the moon arrives earlier than you would hope. We were in a small town, home to a sturdy and impressive prep school and little else: a few coffeeshops, galleries, a bookstore or two and a restaurant with a name like "The Knife 'n' Ratchet." Maybe about three blocks, in Manhattan parlance.

Things in Connecticut are extremely old and colonial. If you can't date yourself to the American revolution, or the French and Indian War, or earlier, don't even bother. The people we saw were pure New England stock: brusque, leathery skin, deepset eyes, strong cheekbones. They all looked like John Updike characters, with that weird New England rural air about them (like some kind of mythical southern blue state). It seemed like a happy and complete life, meandering from the bookshop to the coffeeplace in you sandals and thick woolen socks.

Ah, Connecticut. It was quiet, relaxed, stately, confident. A great place for a weekend, that's for sure.