John Mayer Trio
[Columbia/Aware] *** (3 stars)
The blues are meant to be toyed with. In the right hands, they can be a source of inspiration, the root of an artist's discovery of a unique sound and vision. Or they can be a dead end. For John Mayer, the blues are a welcome escape, a side trip from his career as easy-listening pop star and wiseguy troubadour. Turns out he just wants to be Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"You all ready to get down?" he asks early on this live album, leading his new blues trio - Mayer, bassist Pino Palladino and the accomplished Steve Jordan on drums. Mayer isn't doing anything incredibly original here. Not yet. But the results are more genuine than that '90s wave of flash teenage guitarists that was all technique and no tears.
Mayer always had some real chops within his jazzy, acoustic tunes, and he's all fire and pain on "Out of My Mind," which channels the sound of the late Vaughan and his band Double Trouble. It's a natural if unlikely fit. "Gravity" finds a sweet spot of feeling and grace, and even the funky but mundane "Vultures" erupts at the end with a slippery, agonized solo.
It's understandable that Mayer might want to feed off the energy and sweat of a live gig for the trio's debut, with devoted fans cheering his every wink and nod. But the music suffers from a muffled, mediocre recording that too often sounds as if it were captured from a distance, not up close, and maybe only hints at where Mayer might be headed.
System of a Down
[American Recordings/Columbia] *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)
How could the musically uninhibited System of a Down possibly release a record that's not utterly surprising? Only by making it a second collection of songs from the same studio sessions that produced its last one, the 1.5-million-selling Mezmerize.
Six months ago, that album moved the Los Angeles band's idiosyncratic art-metal to a new level, with guitarist Daron Malakian flexing newfound muscle as a writer and singer. This companion piece sustains that standard while asserting a distinct identity.
The quartet skewered the Iraq war on the Mezmerize track "B.Y.O.B.," and in hoarding this set of songs until now it seemed to anticipate a deepening unease over the whole adventure.
"We're going down in a spiral to the ground/ No one, no one's gonna save us now/ Where do you expect us to go when the bombs fall?" they sing in the title song. Indeed, the entire album is streaked with apprehension and anger.
Being System of a Down's version of fundamental rock, this music is packed with crazy cadences and a parade of unpredictable turns.
It's a measure of the band's tenacity and integrity that what seemed like an impenetrable foreign tongue when the band introduced it seven years ago has become a universal language. It shows that you don't have to dumb down to hit big.
Kicking Television: Live in Chicago
[Nonesuch] *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)
It's funny when Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy sings the musical question, "Do you still like rock 'n' roll?" in "Misunderstood," which opens this in-concert collection - and the fans respond with a rousing, affirmative cheer. Wilco arguably abandoned rock 'n' roll and, for that matter, alt-country, back in 1996 when it first recorded that song.
Since then, Tweedy and his shifting crew have taken elements of rock and country and recombined them in experiments that have, reasonably, gotten them dubbed the American Radiohead. But a few songs later in this two-disc set, the pieces coalesce in "At Least That's What You Said" with the thunder of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. In other words: rock 'n' roll. But it's rock renewed.
This set summarizes the band's history and showcases its latest, strongest lineup, with new member Nels Cline's array of guitarisms and noises illustrating Tweedy's emotional spectrum.