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JOHN MAYER

“Sob Rock” (Columbia Records)

You can thank the pandemic for John Mayer’s eighth studio album. He has said he wrote the songs to wrap listeners in the sonic comforter of soft rock. If you don’t like soft rock, you can blame the pandemic for one more thing.

Mayer kicks off the 10-track “Sob Rock” with a gem: “Last Train Home,” a throwback guitar-and-synth rocker with Maren Morris on background vocals that sounds like it could have been on Eric Clapton’s 1986 album “August.” (Extra credit for the great line “I’m not a fallen angel/I just fell behind.”)

Other bright spots include “New Light,” which finds Mayer suffering unrequited love, or, as he says “pushing 40 in the friend zone.” It has a funky vibe and a Santana-ish solo. And his “Wild Blue” has a cool Dire Straits feel.

If you’re getting a melancholy and retro feel here, you’re not wrong. Unrushed, comfortably in the singer-songwriter pocket — if slightly beige — is the tone here, under the helm of iconic producer Don Was.

It straddles the line between ’80s parody and homage, which the cover also does, reaching for a “Miami Vice” and peak Richard Marx vibe. The guitar work is Mayer at his best, throwing out gorgeous understated fireworks, but too many of their vehicles are unimpressive. “Sob Rock” often sounds like warmed-over yacht rock.

For every “Guess I Just Feel Like” — with shimmering, B.B. King-inspired blues axe work — there’s the lazy “Why You No Love Me,” which sounds like a lounge act gone awry. “Carry Me Away” is as substantial as a summer breeze, and “All I Want Is To Be With You” reeks of faux moody depth, a U2 song without conviction.

Fans of Mayer looking for clues into his private life will find little specific, apart from the intriguing line in “Shot in the Dark:” “I’ve loved seven other women and they all were you.” And he has a great retort for why he hasn’t settled down yet in “Til the Right One Comes:” “I know people broke down and defeated/Lost what they needed in some miserable war/ So forgive me if I might look around for a minute.”

A fine effort, then, to try to resurrect the much-maligned genre of ‘80s soft rock. But it often feels like Mayer just fell behind.

— Mark Kennedy, Associated Press

THE FLATLANDERS

 “Treasure of Love” (Rack’em Records/Thirty Tigers)

Never has the tremulous twang that is unmistakably Jimmie Dale Gilmore been more welcome than after a year and a half of pandemic strangeness.

Listening to The Flatlanders’ “Treasure of Love” is like strolling into a corner honky-tonk and discovering an old friend on the next barstool. Maybe a little grizzled, telling the same stories, but who cares? You’re together again.

Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock first hooked up almost 50 years ago. They’ve since performed together and separately, but The Flatlanders haven’t made an album in more than a decade. Somehow this one manages to sound fresh and relevant, even if the 15 tracks are mostly familiar. Recorded during the pandemic, the selections include tunes made famous by Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan and others, but the trio gives them all their signature Texas sound.

Gilmore takes the lead on the title track, lending a roadhouse whine to the George Jones classic. The tone changes to boot-scooting playful on Hancock’s “Mama Do the Kangaroo.” Another Hancock original, “Moanin’ of the Midnight Train,” features Ely belting out a bittersweet ode to the woman he misses “every night or two.’’

A smattering of Flatlander friends including guitar wizard Robbie Gjersoe and Lloyd Maines on pedal steel fill out the sound.

They close the album with a rollicking version of “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” taking turns on vocals and Hancock’s expressive harmonica adding flair. It’s a tune that gets the crowd going at the group’s live gigs. Something, perhaps, to look forward to.

— Lindsey Tanner, Associated Press

SAULT

 “Nine” (Forever Living Originals)

One of the biggest mysteries of the genre-bending British group Sault is how they have been able to release five uniformly great albums in a little over two years. “Nine,” which the band claims will be available for only 99 days (until Oct. 2), follows two of last year’s best albums, “Untitled (Black Is)” and “Untitled (Rise),” and two of 2019′s highlights, “5” and “7.” Like its predecessors, “Nine” is explicitly about Black experience, in this case, about growing up in London’s council estates. It’s an album full of trauma and resilience and tantalizing songs.

Sault avoids press and most social media (although “Nine” streams on their Instagram account and is available to download for free from www.sault.global), and the exact membership of the band is unclear, aside from producer Inflo (Dean Cover, who helped produced Michael Kiwanuka’s last album), singer Cleo Sol (Cleopatra Nikolic) and a few other regular contributors.

“Nine” plays like a mixtape, journeying from sparse, beat-heavy tracks (“Fear,” which chops up the phrase “the pain is real”; “London Gangs,” which rumbles like an old Chemical Brothers cut) to melancholy and beautiful ballads (“Bitter Streets,” “Alcohol”) to more hopeful, jazzy, collage-like constructions (“Nine,” “Light’s in Your Hands”). Spoken-word segments, sometimes harrowing, sometime humorous, divide the three acts, linking the songs as a sustained interrogation.

Last year’s “Untitled” albums were more lush and leaned more on old-school soul; like “5” and “7,” “Nine” is stripped down (and brief, at 34 minutes). It follows the numerical sequence, although the meaning of it is another mystery.

— Steve Klinge, The Philadelphia Inquirer

FAYE WEBSTER

“I Know I’m Funny haha” (Secretly Canadian)

The funny thing about “I Know I’m Funny haha” is that Faye Webster isn’t trying to be funny anymore.

The Atlanta songwriter and photographer’s first three albums were marked by detached, bemused irony. There was real feeling to be found, but if Webster wanted to communicate a sense of loneliness, she was liable to toss off a clever line like, “my dog is my best friend, and he doesn’t even know my name,” on “Jonny,” from 2019’s “Atlanta Millionaires Club.”

As inviting as that album was, “I Know I’m Funny” — whose opening song “Better Distractions” made it on to Barack Obama’s favorite songs of 2020 playlist — is that much more effective.

That’s partly because Webster has grown more comfortable building songs from delectably understated hallmarks of old-school soul that settle in and cast a languorous spell. An organ fill here, a hint of strings and a touch of sax there, paired with a near-deadpan delivery: “I didn’t know I was capable of being happy right now,” Webster sings on “In a Good Way,” with disarming directness. “But you showed me how.”

Songs that might appear to be goofs wind up having an emotional impact. “A Dream With a Baseball Player,” about Webster’s fond feelings for Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. — that’s a lighthearted novelty, right?

Not really. The song notes the absurdity of — and finds the pathos in — forming intimate bonds with those we only see on screens, or in our dreams. “I saw you last night in my dream, that’s the closest you and I have been/ That’s kind of sad, don’t you think?” It is, but the way Webster sings it, it’s also sort of beautiful.

— Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer

THE BAYLOR PROJECT

“Generations” (Be a Light)

The Philly-based husband-and-wife duo of Jean and Marcus Baylor had achieved success individually — she with the R&B duo Zhane, he as drummer with fusion greats Yellowjackets, among others — before launching The Baylor Project. The pair’s 2017 debut, “The Journey,” earned them a pair of Grammy nominations, but their follow-up is a bold leap forward. In his liner notes for “Generations,” writer Andre Kimo Stone Guess draws parallels between the album and the African American quilt-making tradition, with its artistic, communal and historic connections. It’s an apt analogy given the stylistic reach and wealth of experience covered by the Baylors, who draw from jazz, R&B, gospel and spirituals for inspiration.

The album begins with an organ-fueled party vibe on opener “Strivin’,” graced by a buoyant solo by alto sax great Kenny Garrett; the mood turns tender with a rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” featuring a blissful new lyric by Jean, then dark with a new spiritual-inspired piece entitled “2020.” Made to sound like a chain gang chant played from a scratchy 78 record, the song becomes a lament for the continued struggles cast into harsh light by last year’s political turmoil.

Singers Jazzmeia Horn and Dianne Reeves engage Jean in a scat round robin on the delightful “We Swing,” while pianist Sullivan Fortner brings stride into the present day for the nostalgic “Do You Remember This?”

The album is a true family affair, with reflections on love and marriage contributed by a number of relatives, and a closing benediction by Marcus’ pastor brother Larry J. Baylor.

— Shaun Brady, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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