Harmonica in one hand, acoustic guitar in the other, Mason Jennings is gonna to tell you a story.
This story is foremost a tale of unrequited love (as they
usually are), but it also contains dashes of the worker laboring for
the Man, the Man legislating for the worker and the sites and sounds of
the traveler’s dogged journey home.
Use Your Voice, Jennings’s fifth release, is aptly titled. He
is, in fact, using his voice to carry the story. This sounds like a
pedestrian statement, but it’s Jennings’ idiosyncratic vocals (think of
early-Dylan, of course, as well as Ray Davies and Ron Sexsmith) that
propel the album. Use Your Voice opens and ends strong but sags in the middle, when Jennings’ straight-forward folk gives way to jazzier song constructions.
On the self-revealing opener, “Crown,” Chris Morrissey’s
upright bass and Brian McLeod’s drums lay a firm foundation for
Jennings’ guitar, harmonica and staccato, rise-and-fall vocal delivery.
The uncomplicated recording style, chugging rhythm and Jennings’
everyman lyrics invite the listener into a realm of physical and
emotional movement: “I took the train up from Illinois / I was
following through on a letter you sent / I always feared that you’d be
true / True to yourself to the bitter end.”
The engaging “Crown” sets the stage well for the second,
sauntering ballad, “The Light Pt. 2.” On this track, the trio reduces
both volume and tempo, allowing Jennings’ buoyant tenor to shine: “A
light is thrown by the setting sun / It speeds along this vast familiar
/ And silently crosses everyone / It’s the light that’s changing / It’s
the light that’s changing / It’s the light that’s changing.” It’s also
an affecting start, as well as the point where the album changes
But Use Your Voice becomes strained, and at times
trite, when Jennings tries to inject too much attitude into his songs.
This is evident in the socially-conscious, machine-in-the-garden
“Empire Builder,” where Jennings discards the Guthrie/early-Dylan
rambling, acoustic rhythms for a jazz-influenced cadence. Or see
“Keepin’ It Real,” where Jennings’ “funky” delivery and lyrics turn
silly: “There ain’t no rust on the happiness bus / and it’s Wednesday,
Thursday, my day, Friday / Saturday, Sunday, all the rest are fun
Stylistically, Jennings regains his footing on the final half of Use Your Voice:
the story continues, but the staging becomes more palatable. “The
Ballad of Paul and Sheila,” (a tribute to fellow Minnesotans, the late
Senator Paul and Sheila Wellstone) examines a survivor’s response to
public loss. While the Dylan-esque strumming and articulation of
“Drinking as Religion” and the multi-tracked vocals of the modern-quest
“Ulysses” usher the listener gently to the end of this tale. Jennings
as folk balladeer? Yes. Jennings as funky white-boy? No. Use Your Voice as a good album? Half and half.