Hotel Surrender (Details/BMG)
Sob Rock (Sony)
In several ways it is unfair to align Chet Faker – the once and again name for Australian Nick Murphy’s accidental career project – with American John Mayer.
Murphy’s been capable of deep emotional moments - cathartic at times; exploratory at others – and his lyrics have reflected this. His blending of soul, R&B and electronic underlays felt fresh but still rooted in history. And his singing at its best was equally vulnerable and controlled, suggesting a sensitivity that was personal, not prescribed.
Mayer has sold millions (though like Murphy, especially when the Melburnian reverted to his own name, progressively less recently) of his blues-inflected, occasionally lightly funky, smooth rock.
He is a quality guitarist and … and, well, that’s about it.
Not to be sneezed at incidentally, is the fact that Murphy has had to do far less apologising for egregious slimy behaviour and the kind of social faux pas that in the best light are stupidly clumsy, and in most reasonable lights are arrogantly typical of a certain type of operator.
And finally, while Hotel Surrender is Murphy making a straight Chet Faker album, Sob Rock is Mayer recreating the style, sound and (he hopes) ubiquity of ‘70s/‘80s FM radio, easy listening rock – think Michael McDonald-era Doobies and Jackson Browne circa Lawyers In Love/Lives In The Balance, Christopher Cross and Love Over Gold-era Dire Straits, the baggy end of Foreigner and the saggy end of Eric Clapton.
But those factors aren’t enough to reverse the uncomfortable truth that with these two albums Murphy and Mayer in their own way have hit upon seams of merely adequate, both offering smoothly familiar versions of themselves that feel all surface. And such frictionless surfaces at that.
Mayer’s conceit is not sufficiently distant from his natural style to suggest adventure, more like taking off the dark blue jacket to put on the pastel blue jacket. There’s a little bit of groove, but only enough to tap to rather than dance to. There are quite a few of what the FM DJs back in the day no doubt called tasteful licks, though none of them seriously challenge him. His vocals have a permanent soft lens that gives everything the sincere smile of a gentleman’s outfitter, but in keeping with a voice that has never been remarkable, goes no further.
And while you can connect the dots from new song to influences (or from mild original to its blanched facsimile) oh so easily, not a single track here leaves a mark in any way. I mean, in any way – good or bad. Some might even take awful to at least feel something on listening to Sob Rock.
This is not surprising, let’s be honest: Mayer that isn’t that interesting a writer, singer or musical personality. However, Murphy is capable of much more, and more is expected.
The groove patterns on this record are recognisably Chet Faker: the kind that slide into a room on thick socks; the kind that move from murmuring to muttering to hurting with imperceptible gradations; the kind that remind you he comfortably assimilated No Diggity and Lover You Don’t Treat Me No Good No More as if Sonia Dada and Blackstreet had been separated at birth.
His vocals lean into leaning back so well that you might reasonably suspect Murphy recorded them stretched out on a chaise longue, and when he does raise himself onto an elbow for a bit of activity - in the high-waist pants/even higher-held bass of Feel Good for example - it still feels as if he’s sipping from a cocktail glass in-between lines.
As for the signature forays into the upper register, they spring lightly, much in the way the glistening overlay that fades into the piano of I Must Be Stupid, emerges from nothing and disappears as easily.
All present and accounted for then. Along with some tasty (there’s that word again) guitars and tasteful strings, understated basslines (try the lope of In Too Far for just-enough-to-feel work) and suggestions (but no more than that) of overhanging darkness.
But Murphy’s writing feels overly familiar - not just to a listener but to him. He sounds bored with the songs and not prepared to jolt himself into a surprise, so much so that track after track just sits there waiting for its time to run out.
Perhaps the ultimate insult – to Murphy, but maybe in the end, to us - is that It’s Not You could easily have slipped in from a John Mayer album. Which Mayer album? Who cares?