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Published: Sunday, 1/10/2010

John Mayer's new disc showcases his singing

Beginning Thursday, the Sounds column will move to the Weekender section.

BATTLE STUDIES John Mayer (Columbia)

Checking out John Mayer in the tabloid headlines at the local supermarket, you'd almost think his fame rested on answering the pressing question: Jessica or Jennifer?

To those seeking an answer to that conundrum, his music may be an afterthought. To the rest of us, his latest disc shows that he deserves attention for his ever-improving chops as a singer and songwriter.

His prowess as a guitarist is not front and center, though he shows some tasty licks on a swampy, funky version of the classic “Crossroads.”

Instead, the focus is on the songs on a disc that Mayer talks about in terms of channeling Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, and Neil Young — though the opening bars of the first track “Heartbreak Warfare” recall U2.

Want Mayer in softer focus? Try the ballad “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye.” Like melodic pop/country? Check out “Half Of My Heart” (with Taylor Swift) or the single “Who Says” which is part declaration of independence and part recitation of the lonely life (a theme that recurs in the soft-rock “Perfectly Lonely”).

There's also “Assassin,” an atmospheric song about how love can steal your heart (maybe Neil Young is channeled), and even echoes of The Beatles on “Friends, Lovers or Nothing.”

“Battle Studies” is musically understated, referential of sounds as diverse as 2010 pop/country and '70s soft rock, song-based, and maybe partly confessional.

It certainly takes time to get beneath its surface, to appreciate the songs for what they are — not what we might want them to be based on Mayer's track record. But it's time well worth taking.

— RICHARD PATON

“Up in the Air” lacks the irreverent, quirky aura of Oscar-nominated film director Jason Reitman's last major musical project, the soundtrack to Juno, that oddly appealing coming-of-age movie of 2007.

Reitman, who produced the soundtracks for both films, instead goes for a wayward, dreamy texture, a sound that at times seems airborne without purpose or direction, yet remains just intriguing enough to keep the listener clued in.

It opens with a funky, soulful cover of Woody Guthrie's “This Land Is Your Land” by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, a song that on paper seems an unlikely pairing of talents but is, in fact, surprisingly good.

There are a few obscure songs, mostly of the slow, melodic variety, making the disc drag in parts until it runs out of gas. There are only two previously unreleased tracks, both by artists with personal connections to Reitman.

In the big picture, though, Reitman demonstrates a keen talent for using mood-setting music as a storytelling technique, as all great directors seem to do when they think of music as part of the narrative and not simply a backdrop.

— TOM HENRY

This 300-voice, Grammy-winning gospel choir lays down 14 tracks of hard-hitting fervor in as tasty a package as you can find in religion-based music. Founded with eight singers in 1973 in the historic Brooklyn Tabernacle in Brooklyn, N.Y., the group has become a force in the Gospel genre, performing at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, and before a sellout audience at the cavernous Madison Square Garden.

The choir has already won six Grammys and nine Dove Awards through sales of 4 million albums, and its 28th release is packed with power all the way through. The lyrics offer unabashed devotion to God with a fine collection of upbeat songs drenched in uplifting melodies and interesting beats.

Thirteen of the numbers were written by choir founder Carol Cymbala and her in-house writing team. The singers' considerable talents move easily through soaring crescendos and emotional solos, with no weak tracks and certainly no boredom.

It's an uplifting treat for the listener regardless of religious preference.

— KEN ROSENBAUM



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