Mayer's 'Heavier Things' not quite weighty enough

John Mayer

"Heavier Things" (Aware/Columbia)

** 1/2

As a columnist for Interview magazine, Elton John has shown an uncanny eye for pop excellence, championing quality artists ranging from Eminem and Lucinda Williams to Coldplay and the White Stripes. But what's this fascination with John Mayer?

Sir Elton certainly isn't alone in his enthusiasm for the 25-year-old singer-songwriter from Atlanta. More than 3 million people have bought Mayer's "Room for Squares" album, and he won a Grammy this year for male pop vocal ("Your Body Is a Wonderland"). Still, there is little in the 2001 debut CD or in this one to make you think of Mayer as anything more than someone who can dance along musical surfaces with charm and style.

He's got a raspy, informal vocal style, which places him somewhere between David Gray and Coldplay's Chris Martin, and this time he shows a knack for bright, surprising pop textures that, at their best, aim for the pop sophistication of Paul Simon and Sting. This all sounds impressive. Yet valuable singer-songwriters give us observations about life that have absorbing character and depth.

In his themes, Mayer deals in all the usual suspects -- reaching for dreams, the trials of relationships and self-doubt. Despite the suggestion of substance in the album title, however, little adds up to a compelling on //or?// independent vision. Mayer provides a lot of lines to sing along with, but almost nothing to linger over.

In the album's most convincing moment (the uncertainty of "Split Screen Sadness"), he finally offers traces of a promise. Elsewhere, he still seems a long way from breaking that surface.

Robert Hilburn

Dandys look back in irony at the '80s

The Dandy Warhols

"Welcome to the Monkey House" (Capitol)

***

The depressing thing about being ahead of one's time is that it's hard to cash in on trends. In 2000, this decadent quartet from Portland presaged the garage-rock revival with "13 Tales from Urban Bohemia." But although the degenerate new tune "Hit Rock Bottom" smacks of the old glam, the Dandy Warhols have moved on to mine the fields of '80s rock and new wave.

So if you don't dig sometimes ironic takes on Thomas Dolby and Gang of Four and Peter Gabriel and the Time, "Welcome to the Monkey House" may not be your thing. Still, it isn't a total departure. It retains that Dandys swagger, the too-cool-for-you sarcasm and the velvety dark drugginess -- not to mention the adventurousness that keeps the band from repeating itself in the first place.

Despite the tongue-in-cheek synth-funk of "I Am a Scientist," the band hasn't gone electroclash -- it also employs a dense thicket of electric and acoustic guitars, plus real drums alongside electronic beats. Some of singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor's vocals are in the talk-sung vein of "Bohemia," but he also favors a campy falsetto on such tracks as the hypnotic "Plan A."

The group also continues to pass off drawn-out vamps as songs (see "The Dope"), which can be tiring. Yet such selections as the electro-juggernaut "We Used to Be Friends" are fetchingly atmospheric and propulsive. The Dandy Warhols headline the Henry Fonda Theatre on Sept. 24.

-- Natalie Nichols

Raveonettes' versatile rock is something to crow about

The Raveonettes

"Chain Gang of Love" (Columbia)

*** 1/2

Less is more and more on this debut full-length album from the Danish duo. Singer-bassist Sharin Foo and singer-songwriter-guitarist Sune Rose Wagner follow a classic minimal rock 'n' roll formula but squeeze a lot of variety into 13 tracks that fly by in 33 minutes.

Twisting up such early rockers as Buddy Holly and Bobby Fuller, Beach Boys-esque harmonic pop and the post-punk intensity of the Pixies, the pair crafts a lush, subterranean vibe on such numbers as "That Great Love Sound" and "Noisy Summer." Lots of distortion, as on the morbid country tune "Love Can Destroy," adds an undercurrent of desperation that's sweetened by cascades of sustained, almost pretty guitar noise a la the Jesus and Mary Chain.

The lyrics play with convention as well, coming across as simultaneously playful, lusty, dire and mocking. The focus is s-e-x -- from the torchy glow of the Spector-like "Remember" to the dark psychedelia of "The Love Gang" to the wry rawness of "Little Animal." There's something slightly art-gallery about it all, a sense that they're deliberately experimenting with sonic forms, but that ultimately doesn't get in the way of enjoying the Raveonettes' vision of romantically apocalyptic rock.

The group plays the El Rey Theatre Oct. 2.

-- Natalie Nichols

Quick Spins

T.I.

"Trap Muzik" (Atlantic)

***

This talented Atlanta rapper's stock rose sky-high this year thanks to his appearance on Bone Crusher's hit single "Never Scared." On his second strong album, which recently entered the sales chart in the Top 5, T.I. delivers his distinctive brand of Southern-inflected hip-hop. The underground hit "24's" thumps harder than turbulence on an airplane, and the soulful "Just Doin' My Job" is a veiled apology for his affinity for the streets. Regardless of topic, T.I.'s "Muzik" wins.

-- Soren Baker

Eastside Sinfonietta

"Don't Be Afraid" (True Classical)

** 1/2

The Kurt Weill estate reportedly feared that singer and performance artist Weba Garretson's interpretations of the composer's songs would be disrespectful. But she and her four veteran Los Angeles art-scene cohorts play it straight and credible on selections obscure ("Youkali Tango") and familiar ("Moritat," a.k.a. "Mac the Knife"), with Garretson's warm alto giving a personable tone to the mostly Bertolt Brecht lyrics. Still, Weill interpretations are hardly rare, and some arty twists might have distinguished the Eastsiders' versions more.

-- Steve Hochman

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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