Mraz makes it look EZ on `Mr. A-Z'

Music

December 08, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Jason Mraz loves words.

That's obvious as you listen to any cut from his latest album, Mr. A-Z, a clever play on his last name. He finds ways to twist phrases and meanings, forcing wordy passages into simple melodies. He is a self-proclaimed geek, insecure about his looks, his talent, his standing in the pop-rock world. He addresses such concerns in the lyrically dizzying "Wordplay," the first single from the new album: "Before my people write me off just like a one-hit wonder/I gotta find another way to keep from going under."

"I think the album is a better representation of me than anything I've done so far," says Mraz, 28, who is calling from a tour stop in Dallas. The singer-songwriter-musician plays the 9:30 Club on Tuesday night. "I think it reflects more of where I was last year as an artist. I wrote about travels, relationships, different things. I really felt like an artist this time around."

Mr. A-Z, the follow-up to the singer's 2002 platinum major-label debut Waiting For My Rocket to Come, ripples with various styles. The album title also suggests Mraz's experimental spirit in the studio. Celebrated producer Steve Lillywhite, who has overseen records by U2, the Rolling Stones, the Dave Matthews Band, Peter Gabriel and others, provided ample amounts of polish to Mraz's kaleidoscopic musical approach. Shades of classical, hip-hop, country, jazz, bossa nova and modern soul color the 12-song set.

"I dig pretty much everything I hear," says the Mechanicsville, Va., native. "My influences are everything. When I write songs, I always think of the live show first because I can do so many different styles on stage."

On the new album, the artist's heavy-handed wordplay can be unabashedly self-indulgent, the sentiment awkward, even a little silly. In the overblown ballad "Plane," Mraz takes consolation that if his plane crashes, he will at least be able to see his girlfriend's house. As he achingly croons the song, you wonder if he is serious. The number sounds like something from a singer-songwriter parody on Mad TV.

But if lyrically the songs seem forced or inane, the music manages to pull you in. Even with glints of disparate musical styles thrown in, the arrangements are still unassuming but seldom bland.

Mraz says, "Every time I hear something -- a rock song, hip-hop, whatever -- I think, `Hey, I want to try that. I can do that.' On this record, I tried to experiment with a lot of styles since I'm influenced by everything so much."

Mr. A-Z is far removed from the singer's folksy coffeehouse beginnings in San Diego, where he has lived since 1999. He quickly became a local sensation in the area. In 2001, he independently released his self-titled debut, a live recording at his performance home base, Java Joe's in Ocean Beach. The next year, Sold Out (In Stereo), a second self-issued CD recorded at Java Joe's, sold well. That same year, Mraz caught the attention of Elektra Records, and he signed a contract.

When Waiting For My Rocket to Come appeared in October 2002, the reception wasn't immediate. Mraz heavily toured the college circuit and landed opening slots on shows with Coldplay, Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews and Jewel. Once radio embraced the densely written "Remedy (I Won't Worry)," the singer-songwriter's profile steadily rose. In May, Waiting For My Rocket was certified platinum.

In an age of American Idol and instant superstardom, Mraz's pop ascent has been something of a slow burn. But after the release of his major-label debut, he says he never really anticipated becoming Jason Mraz, the pop-rock star.

"I had no expectations on the first album," the performer says. "I had no expectation with this album. If I sell 100 copies, cool. I know so many bands that can't get records in stores, so I'm thankful for the opportunities I get."

But now that he is indeed a bankable, platinum-selling act, Mraz says the focus won't change.

"I feel no traps," he says. "There's always somebody there to tell you that you could have sold more. You sold 3 million; you could have sold 4 and so on. But I just want to do the best music I can do. That's it."

Jason Mraz performs at the 9:30 Club, 815 V. St. N.W. in Washington, Tuesday night. The show is sold out.

rashod.ollison@ baltsun.com

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