They’ve won a Grammy and sold millions of albums but critics still have the knives out for Maroon 5, writes Natasha Stokes

Maroon 5 are one of those bands who annoy music critics. They’ve released about two too many singles per album, play to a ridiculously large fanbase and, worst of all, never made a blip on music-reviewing radar until it was too late to call dibs on the hype.

Plus the music they make is relentlessly radio-friendly. Led by frontman, composer and lyricist Adam Levine, the Los Angeles quintet have been called everything from “devilishly memorable funkinfluenced rock” to “those goons”.

“I think it’s our earnestness that turns off a lot of critics,” says guitarist James Valentine. Certainly their 2002 debut album, Songs About Jane, was earnest – a collection of vaguely danceable songs inspired by Levine’s tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend at the time. Still, listening to some of the hitsoff their second effort, It Won’t be Soon Before Long, it’s easy to gloss over any less inspired bits and focus on the aggressive basslines, tight guitars and Levine’s trademark falsetto vocals. Maroon 5 are really good at playing their instruments and for fans of the stuff, they’re good at poppy, funky, light-as-air rock too. Hong Kong will get its first taste of the hype when the band perform at AsiaWorld-Arena on March 19.

Originally a grungier rock quartet named Kara’s Flowers – named after, yes, a girl called Kara who the
boys gave flowers to once – the band is now Levine, Valentine, keyboardist Jesse Carmichael, bassist Mickey Madden and drummer Matt Flynn. Despite adebut that eventually went tripleplatinum, they had an undistinguished start. “Most of the major critics ignored Songs About Jane. We toured for a couple of years before getting any attention,” Valentine says.

Opening for acts such as John Mayer and Counting Crows built them the reputation, and the hit single Harder to Breathe helped push the band into the mainstream. Four more singles trickled out, pushing record sales into the millions and in 2005 Maroon 5 won the best new artist Grammy, three years after they’d actually been new artists. “It was such a slow build. By the time Songs About Jane was regarded as successful, most critics had missed the chance to review it,” Valentine says. “When the second record was due to come out, it got so much attention that they had to respond.”

It Won’t be Soon Before Long took five years to make, due in part to the long build-up then sudden explosion of Songs, a triumph the band weren’t prepared for. By then, Maroon 5 were getting invitations to play with Stevie Wonder and open for the Rolling Stones, and the pressure was on to deliver what would be a highly scrutinised second album.

“We definitely became more polished. The biggest change since Songs About Jane is the dance element. Going into the studio, we were experimenting with more upbeat songs to spice up the set and I think that we accomplished that,” Valentine says.

While the album was reasonably well received, some critics also noted the inability of Levine’s songwriting to live up to the catchy, confident music. It’s fun stuff – anupbeat, slickly produced affair with lashings of whitebread funk and an obvious homage to the Police.

Lyrically, however, it plods through rather tired scenarios of breaking up, making up and sexing up, often with more graphic detail than strictly necessary. It’s a broader look at the fairer sex and Levine’s trials and tribulations with women, told by the ladykiller gone platinum rather than the single-minded, pining lover of Songs About Jane.

“Relationships are one of the filters through which Adam experiences things most intently and both albums reflect the place he was at,” says Valentine. “Whether this limits us – well, if we’re going to continue to make music, it’s got to evolve in every way, and lyrics would be one part of it.

“The more I’ve been around, the more I’ve seen that what we do is really appreciated by a lot of people,” says Valentine. “People really respond to well-written songs that are performed well, and pop songs reach them. A lot of critics didn’t respect our second album, but I think our songs will stick around, and looking back, people will go, ‘there’s a well-written song’. We don’t really care what the critics say – they didn’t help us get where we are.”

Hipster music review website Pitchfork hasn’t been kind to the band – one headline last year read: “The Hives stuck touring with Maroon 5”. Valentine says: “We’re like the anti-Pitchfork band, which is funny because I don’t think any of us thought we’d end up being that kind of band. All these snobby rock critics have their own heads up their asses. It’s inherent in rock criticism and I’m glad people are starting to listen to music other than Neil Young and old white guys with guitars who rock critics seem to consider the bastion of rock.

“I would appreciate a review with constructive criticism rather than something like ‘These guys are douchebags’, just because it’s popular,” Valentine says.

Levine also has a lot of gossip to deal with – the tabloids devoting a lot of coverage to his involvement with various Hollywood actresses didn’t endear the band to the music press either. “The tabloids went with him because he’s been identified with a couple of ladies, and it spun out of control,” Valentine says. “We don’t really like a lot of what that’s brought to the perception of the band. But he’s learned to step back.

“Adam is the centre of everything. The rest of us collaborate on the music, but the lyrics and melody come from him,” says the guitarist.

Whatever the critics say, more than 10 million album buyers believe Maroon 5 are on the right track.

Originally published in the South China Morning Post, Mar 6, 2008.

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