Jason Mraz’s Mr. A-Z: A Mixed Bag

When Jason Mraz emerged in 2002 right on the heels of fellow pop/rock singer/songwriter John Mayer, the duo were quickly labeled the “cool geeks” of pop music. And both managed to successfully carve a niche for themselves in pop music. Both were able to appease the mainstream and endear themselves to fans with their hooky brands of honest and open yet self-effacing and quirky music.

Yet while John was more self-effacing, Jason was more quirky. He was the one who rapped more than he sang on his debut single, “The Remedy”, and followed with an album chockfull of quirky pop/rockers-with-tinges-of-folk-country-and-hip-hop that reveled in the offbeat novelty present. Aside from a few moving ballads thrown in to balance things out, and successfully showcase Jason’s innate talents, Waiting On My Rocket To Come was an album that prided itself on dancing to the offbeat of a different drummer.

Once the album pushed past platinum and was on the tip of every critic’s tongue in 2002, Jason seemed like a Grammy shoo-in. But once the announcements were made public and the noticeable absence of Jason’s name from the list of nominees left a visibly bad taste in his mouth, it was apparent that maybe Jason was the only one who took him and his music seriously. So after a 3-year siesta, only briefly interrupted by a double-disc, live LP, Jason is back and determined to make his burgeoning legion of listeners take him and his music as seriously as he does.

Glancing at the album cover and seeing both the title, Mr. A-Z, written in bold Sharpie letters, and Mr. Mraz sitting at a desk in the middle of a school hallway making paper footballs, one would quickly assume that Jason has fine-tuned his “geek-chic” appeal even further. And with one listen to lead single, Wordplay, one would assume that the offbeat quirkiness is back in full-effect. And yet, one would be wrong on both accounts.

It’s safe to say that both the album cover was shot and the lead single was recorded with Jason’s tongue firmly planted in cheek. “Wordplay” was designed solely in mind to skewer the entire concept of the “sophomore slump” and record label’s pressure on artists to produce a hit single. Replete with jumbled, nonsensical verses and a contradictory hook of “la-la-la’s”, fans of Jason’s debut will be surely pleased.

For those who thrive off of Jason’s quirkiness, he doesn’t completely abandon his “geek-chick” roots and serves up one other tune that mirrors both “Wordplay” and Rocket. A surprise production cameo by Scott Storch, Jason exercises his “hip-hop in flip-flops” skills by busting a few bars about how he’s “skinny but fat full of rhymes” and does his best to charm a lady into choosing the “Geek In The Pink” over those other “dumb-dumbs who don’t care if you comeâÂ?¦.plete them or not”. The smooth, hip-hop groove is enhanced with tinges of Jason’s natural pop/rock sensibilities and his self-confidence alone is what helps make the record such a charming listen.

The fact those two tunes are the poppiest, hookiest songs on the record is a double-edged sword. The rest of this record focuses more on depth and moods rather than on quirks and hooks. On one hand, it possibly indicates that Jason’s music might have gained some of that purported depth he’s always spouting about. On the other, it might be a sign that Jason’s music has succumbed to his superego to the point of it thinking it’s better than it is. Either way, the rest of the album is an intriguing listen.

Opener, Life Is Wonderful, offers hope that Jason’s music has evolved for the better. Against a spare acoustic guitar that fleshes out into a mellow mid-tempo, Jason’s densely poetic lyricism is displayed well here, him waxing poetic and enumerating things that can’t exist with each other as a sign to show how life is wonderful. And although how life being wonderful is connected to his list is beyond me, it’s still a engaging listen that highlights how entertaining Jason can be when the quirky factor’s squelched.

Did You Get My Message?
is a charming and spry, bluesy duet between Jason and Rachel Yamagata, the duo playing two lovers in a relationship where the communication lines have become strained. Rachel’s jazzy alto complements Jason’s bubbly tenor nicely and the duo both contrast the somber undertones of the music well; also inadvertently demonstrating that Jason’s music does sound best when the quirkiness is natural and unintentional rather than forced and obvious.

Mr. Curiosity is a wistful piano ballad that has Jason, in a gentle falsetto, begging for curiosity to re-enter his heart so that he can regain the willingness to want to try to find love again. The pain and heartache shading Jason’s voice makes the song even more emotional and with the operatic interlude quietly placed in the middle, you’ll subconsciously be pleading with Jason in no time.

Clockwatching, built around a start-stop acoustic guitar line that spreads out into a folk-pop-rock-country-lite frenzy of instruments, is about two lovers who wish to be suspended motionless in time just so they can be together and away from their hustle-and-bustle life and is about as entertaining as this run-on sentence.

Jason’s been quoted as saying Bella Luna is the highlight of the record and he might be right. With a lush, hypnotic and jazzy bossa nova groove, Jason does his best jazz lounge singer impersonation and does a damn good job. Almost evoking images of a younger, more vocally inexperienced yet still talented Sinatra or Martin, Jason effortlessly makes the song wistful and romantic without sounding stilted and out of his element, utilizing the stripped arrangement to prove that he really is an adept, and adaptable, singer. Then he takes his style in an opposite direction with O. Lover, using a hurried salsa groove to describe his pleasure and frustration with an opportunistic lover.

And then he utilizes Plane to prove he can be dramatic with the best of them. Starting off with nothing but a dramatic acoustic piano, the music builds to a climax of drums, strings, and whatnot as Jason describes a tortured relationship that he wants to leave but fears he cannot and thus uses airplane metaphors to describe how even if he dies trying to escape its clutches, he’ll remember the pleasure over the pain and at least be content with the fact that he made an effort to escape. The instrumentation at the end overdramatizes the situation a bit but by then, Jason has more than sold his story with conviction.

Please Don’t Tell Her is the highlight of the record for me. The simple, mid-tempo pop/rock arrangement, offbeat melody, and Jason’s quirky yet personal and heartfelt lyricism all combining to form a subtle, mellow mood that shows Jason at his most endearing and human. He sounds like a close friend telling you his dilemma with a fellow friend who likes him in a way that he doesn’t like her. The conviction in his voice as he describes her and their friendship and then the subtle uncertainty when he has to deny his feelings for her, trying to make us believe something he’s lying to himself about makes the song that much more personal and easier to identify with.

Forecast is a yawn-inducing, mellow pop/rocker with the album’s most nonsensical, obtuse lyrics that seem to describe a great relationship by using pitiful weather metaphors (everyone might find me foolish to not be counting on the sun/but your mouth is my umbrella now/and I’m holding your tongue) and a lackadaisical vocal from Mr. Mraz. And then there’s the 8:00 finale, Song For A Friend. Whoever this friend might be, Jason’s taken the time out to personally thank them for all their advice on life they gave him as it’s all paid off.

Some of it Jason followed (‘keep your tongue up in your cheek’) and some he didn’t (‘you’re magic but don’t let it all go to your head’) but all of it was greatly appreciated. Jason keeps the production on the more mellow side for the first 6:30 or so, then when the false end rears its head, a gospel choir kicks back in and support Jason as he encourages the listener, and himself, to search and find their inner strength. A bit corny, yes, but the thought is what counts.

Just like his fellow “geek in the pink”, Mr. Mayer, John spent some time growing up and allowed his sound to get a little heavier and exhibit a little more maturity for this album. And while Mr. A-Z is a considerable departure from Rocket, it isn’t a necessarily bad record. At times, Jason does spread him and his sound a bit too thin and there are moments where you ascertain Jason isn’t as mature as he’s letting on, struggling to make the listener believe the material is deeper than it is but overall, Jason’s done a good job of standing up for himself and demanding that, even though he might be a self-proclaimed “geek in the pink”, he still be taken seriously.

He might’ve tried a bit too hard to prove his point and will subsequently have to work harder to sell people on this record but hopefully, people will realize that even if he might’ve sounded better while waiting for his rocket to come, where that rocket actually took him isn’t such a bad place after all.

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