Jason Mraz

Mr. A-Z (Atlantic)

Jason Mraz's second studio album actually makes something of its uninspired title. From his upbeat, white-boy funk to his clever coffeehouse "Wordplay" to his swooping, Broadway-style ballads, Mraz couldn't cover more bases if his skills had been designed by a marketing committee. Of course, for those who prefer that talent be preceded by natural, this supercompetent musician may sound as antiseptic and calculated as the Backstreet Boys or Linkin Park. But while those two machines homogenized Boyz II Men and Korn, Mraz's one-man talent show actually improves on his sources and then some.

At his worst, Mraz is still smarter than Jewel and more human-sounding than Dave Matthews. At his best, he's a younger Rufus Wainwright or late-period Elvis Costello for freshman sorority pledges, which is to say that this former theater student has a real knack for complex, idiosyncratic balladry. His lyrics show a combination of huggable self-deprecation and showmanship that hinges on alliteration and phrasing -- all the old-school elements of pop craft generally eschewed in the American Idolera. This time, go in peace, pink-cheeked geek.

 
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