What separates Mason Jennings from his singer/songwriter contemporaries is not necessarily his simplicity. Friend and frequent tourmate Jack Johnson is no more complicated; both artists focus primarily on acoustic-guitar-backed songs and a casual listener might hear the two as one in the same. But while Johnson's music reflects the breezier, non-confrontational side of his upbringing - songs about love and surfing, good weather and good friends - Jennings has proven consistently to be a stronger, more introspective songwriter. On his fifth album and major label debut, he doesn't stray from what got him this far, and the results are numerous.
Jennings's source of power is undoubtedly his voice. At times it is easy and comforting, as on "Be Here Now," "Gentlest Hammer" and "If You Ain't Got Love." And when Jennings wants to open it up, he does, as on "Some Say I'm Not." It's not quite a departure - "Godless" (off his 1998 self-titled, self-produced debut for Architect Records) featured a similar tone of anger and insistency that was more punk than finger-plucked. But Jennings infuses these direct tales such as "Some Say I'm Not" and "Jesus Are You Real" with a gospel-choir tenacity that feels like a natural extension of his vocal range. It never seems forced, and it allows the subtle emotions of his songs to resonate. "Got so lost that I went to church/ Sorry, God, but you made it worse," he sings on "If You Need a Reason." This is a real man writing honest lyrics; there's nothing hidden, nothing concealed or obtuse.
Musically, Jennings understands the impact of altering a song's dynamics. On "Some Say I'm Not," he uses the simplest shift - soft to loud - to astounding effect. In the same way Kurt Cobain took a simple melodic phrase and alternately sang and screamed it - "Lounge Act" is a great example - Jennings does a slightly toned-down version here, allowing the verse, at its most climactic point backed by off-beat crashing cymbals, to act as the sing-along chorus. And with long-time bandmate Chris Morissey on bass and Dave King (The Bad Plus, Happy Apple) on drums, the focus remains upfront and center, and when the drums stretch, its in the service of the song's natural arc.
It seems an afterthought to mention that this is the first release of Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock's Glacial Pace imprint. He produced Wolf Parade's 2005 debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, and instantly the feeling was that nobody else could have produced it, that Wolf Parade was "like Modest Mouse." But Noah Georgeson (Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart) is the producer here, and the only time Brock seems to have entered the studio is to urge Jennings to multi-track his vocals over a synthesizer on "Where the Sun Had Been." It's a throwaway tune.
Autonomy is something Jennings has always thrived on. With earnest and direct lyrics, he grips the listener and sings about things we all know: "I guess you don't want me to think/ So instead I'll dream and drink/ Got too drunk to drive home/ In the cab I grabbed my phone/ And made a call I might regret/ To a girl that I just met." Mason Jennings could make a beautiful album with just a guitar. To have the full band add heft to his tunes is a blessing, something he could truly and honestly sing about.
Architect Records Web site
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