Maroon 5 hits the sweet spot between money and mojo

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      It was a drearily typical hit job. When it was announced in September that Maroon 5 would be accompanied on its current North American tour by glossy Swedish garage-punkers the Hives, Pitchfork took the opportunity to stick the boot in. Conveniently forgetting that it takes more than a small measure of complicity on both sides to arrange such an alliance, the on-line hipster index snarked, "Hives Stuck Touring with Maroon 5", before going on to describe the Los Angeles hit machine as "goons", and puzzling hopelessly over a pairing that broached its binary universe of "cool" versus "uncool".

      Singer Adam Levine comes alive a little bit when the topic comes up, asking exactly what Pitchfork said about his band, and then concluding, "They'll resent us as long as they can, till it's impossible to ignore us." And he's probably right.

      Levine is the face of Maroon 5, of course. And, boy oh boy–what a face it is. The 28-year-old Brentwood, California, native is all willowy good looks, atop rippling abs and manicured style. With a God-given set of sensitive soul-man pipes to boot, Levine is quite naturally despised by most red-blooded heterosexual guys, this being exacerbated by his habit of dropping his knickers in Maroon 5's videos. Most of the world first noticed Levine taunting us from on top of his pneumatic former girlfriend Kelly McKee in 2004's mega hit "This Love", pledging to "keep her coming every night" before sliding down and disappearing somewhere between her melons.

      As Maroon 5 emerged as arguably the dominant blue-eyed pop phenomenon of the oughties–a fascinating and irresistible fusion of the Police, U2, '80s R&B, and Michael Jackson when he was still Off the Wall and not round the bend–Levine became a tabloid sensation, too. Those action-knickers of his have been up and down, and in and out of the press ever since, aligned with names like Jessica Simpson and Natalie Portman, and (erroneously) Maria Sharapova. Such dalliances eventually earned Levine the title "man-whore" in the New York Post, among other places.

      An understandable wariness about the media might explain why his call from Houston to the Straight is a somewhat clipped affair. Levine is affable enough, even offering at one point, "You seem to have good energy." But outside of the occasional burst of cockiness, he knocks most questions on the head as quickly and efficiently as a whack-a-mole professional in championship form. Asked, for instance, to reveal the most extreme kind of music played on the famously eclectic group's tour bus, he offers a flip, distracted, "Probably some wack John Cage crap", and then leaves it at that.

      Levine seems unwilling to get into any topic too deeply but then, why should he? Maroon 5 isn't one of the biggest bands on earth because of its content. Levine's lyrics are primed for rhythm and sound; the subject matter doesn't extend much beyond breakup testimonials and soft-focus relationship angst. The fine recent single "Wake Up Call" is an exception, in that it offers a hard-boiled narrative, about which Levine quips: "Yeah, of course they'll give me flak for being a 'man-whore', but they won't give me flak for writing a song about double murder." And to hear Levine croon "the distance between us makes it so hard to stay", in the gorgeously creamy chorus of "Nothing Lasts Forever", is to understand how a voice can lift the blandest of sentiments.

      Both those songs are from the recently released It Won't Be Soon Before Long, the album it took almost a half-decade to make after the debut Songs About Jane turned Maroon 5 into the sleeper band of the decade. The disc hits that rare sweet spot between monstrous commercial success and critical admiration, its 12 tracks marrying radio-tooled silkiness with the hard edge of a former grunge act.

      "Well, yeah, we all got into the Stevie Wonders, the Al Greens, and the Bill Withers of the world," recalls Levine, about the cooling-out period between the 5 and its initial incarnation as Kara's Flowers in the '90s. (Levine's sole statement about the original band, which was basically Maroon 5 with a different drummer: "Bad lyrics.")

      "I think we were just growing up and diversifying our tastes," he continues, "The [Miseducation of] Lauryn Hill album was so influential for me, because it was a contemporary album, almost a futuristic-sounding record, but it was rooted in a lot of what the old soul music had, and that really turned me on. I was like, 'Okay, cool, she's doing a new spin on an old thing.'"

      Meanwhile, Levine was finding his own, post-adolescent voice. "I realized, 'Oh my God, I'm a soul singer,'" he explains. "I'm not a wailer. I'm not Eddie Vedder, I'm not Kurt Cobain, even though those were my heroes. That was a huge revelation for me, which led to this kind of strange hybrid sound of many different things."

      On first listen, much of It Won't Be Soon”¦ registers as smart and polished modern R&B, swinging from Prince ("Kiwi") and OutKast ("Little of Your Time") to a less high-concept Scissor Sisters ("If I Never See You Again"). Gradually, the rockier elements emerge; a splashy high-hat cymbal drives the chorus of "If I Never See Your Face Again"; a flanged guitar in the middle eight of "Can't Stop" is straight out of "Walking on the Moon" by the Police, who also show up in "Won't Go Home Without You", at least until the arrival of a soaring Weezer-esque chorus.

      The final track, and the only one not bearing Levine's name, "Back at Your Door", is a swooning, minor-chord love song complete with string section.

      "He's a one-man jazz odyssey," Levine says of its composer, guitarist-keyboardist Jesse Carmichael. "If Jesse were to control the musical flavour of the band we would definitely be very different. There'd be a lot of flutes and didjeridus. But, without that, we wouldn't be who we are, so it's kind of important for everyone to balance each other out." He then adds that it's his job to "lovingly pull him back to earth" whenever Carmichael gets carried away.

      In total, the formula works remarkably well, and the album is textbook cunning, thrilling, and instantly classic pop. When enough time and fashion has passed, the snobs at Pitchfork will almost certainly be reminiscing about Maroon 5 and its pristine commercial savvy.

      "That's what I predict, as well," agrees Levine. "I think deep down they really like us. They're just coming to terms with it, slowly but surely."

      Maroon 5 plays the Pacific Coliseum on Saturday (November 3)

      Link: Maroon 5 official site

      Video for "Wake Up Call"