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BRIGHT LIGHTS, SOFT TOUCH The Jason Spooner Trio.

Jason Spooner is an amalgamation of John Prine and John Mayer — great songs and great hair, all in one package. Their aesthetics are similar, too. Sure, there are important and wounded songs in the bag, but these guys aren't afraid to have a good time, either.

If you're looking for a reminder of this, play Spooner's brand-new Sea Monster back-to-back with the great new compilation of Prine songs, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows, featuring some of the rising talent in roots music today (and, I guess, do it while watching a Pantene commercial — by no means listen to the latest Mayer album). Both songwriters have their break-up tracks and social commentary, but the former finishes with a Dixifried honky-tonk special encouraging people to "get back to the chicken shack" and the latter suggests, "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian."

Those with little patience for a little silliness in their music might scoff, sure, but both songwriters have always seemed particularly interested in exploring the breadth of the American songbook.

Sea Monster is easily Spooner's strongest effort to date, continuing to improve upon his mixed debut, Lost Houses, and the much-improved Flame You Follow, released in the summer of 2007. Again, Spooner has increased confidence and swagger, with a better feel for working in the studio with Jonathan Wyman that results in forays into songs that are occasionally R&B or funk-flavored, but keep a central Americana sound at their core.

It's hard to know whether this solid material or Spooner's hard and smart work has resulted in his increasing success. The music industry is just so strange right now. No doubt, it's pretty cool to see Spooner's tracks listed on Starbucks' domestic playlist right between Elliott Smith and Steely Dan, but whoever thought we'd be judging success by a coffee chain's seal of approval?

There are four Spooner tracks from Sea Monster pounding their ways into baristas' heads, actually: the opening "Crashing Down," with a digital beat in the open seemingly meant to alert the listener that this isn't your average singer/songwriter album; "Time is Running Out," with an exquisite clasping high hat sound and some of Spooner's best vocal work ("I'm a newborn baby at the top of the stairs/I'm a shadow of your doubt/I'm a wasp in your hair"); and "Seed in the Ground," infused with harmonica in the chorus: "I don't want to be the one to tell you/That I will only be the one to sell you out." Plus his "Wishing Well" cover.

Yes, Spooner covers Terence Trent D'Arby. Nor is it a wink, wink, congratulations-for-making-it-to-the-end kind of thing. Plunked down right at track number four, it's a central tune here. Combined with his cover of the Talking Heads' "Slippery People" on Flame, you've got to cede him a reputation for choosing interesting covers. Spooner does, admittedly, come off more fey than D'Arby (seriously, go watch the video on YouTube — 1.8 million other people did), but he's much more organic too, with a horn section and a ripping bass player.

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  Topics: Music Features , Music, Rufus Wainwright, John Mayer,  More more >
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