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Music Review: Mason Jennings – In The Ever

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Mason Jennings’ most recent effort is the 2008 album In The Ever. I cannot speak for his previous releases, as this is the first I’ve heard, but so far as I know this guy’s work is pretty special.

He has this laidback, hippy-esque vibe going on. The music primarily consists of acoustic guitar, piano, a little bit of drums, and his vocals. It isn’t a particularly complicated formula, but he pulls it off quite well. Off the top of my head, the closest comparisons I can draw are to the likes of Jack Johnson and Keaton Simons.

Although I’ve only recently discovered Mason Jennings, it’s pretty easy to do a bit of research on him. He’s based out of Minneapolis, and In The Ever is his sixth album, released in 2008 from Brushfire Records (ironically, Brushfire is owned by the aforementioned Jack Johnson). He has previously toured for his 2006 album Boneclouds, opened for Guster on their Winter 2007 tour, and performed two Bob Dylan songs for the movie I’m Not There.

In the Ever occupies a special place in my music-loving heart. For me, the album isn’t just collection of songs. Rather, it is a special memory. This occurred in a rather roundabout, counter-intuitive way. It involved the Austin City Limits music festival, happenstance, and a healthy dose of luck. Allow me to explain.

I attended this year’s Austin City Limits, at which various alternative rock groups perform. One of my friends convinced me to drop by this guy Mason Jennings’s concert. I was just killing time, waiting to see Iron and Wine, so we moseyed on over (mosey, by the way, is a quite accurate description of how everyone moves at ACL). I’m glad we did, because what followed was one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended.

Mason Jennings came on stage at 6:30 and proceeded to calmly, effortlessly rock my world for the next forty-five minutes. His stage performance is strikingly similar to the studio recording – most artists will play a little rougher, or simplify hard parts or not quite get the balance right. There were no such problems here. He played through In The Ever like nobody’s business, and had the audience in something of a trance. We all swayed a bit to the music, many performed impromptu, individual dances, and everyone left with stupid grins on their faces.

Jennings’s work is unmistakably folk music, but he demonstrates broad skill and variety within that genre. The song “Soldier Boy” is upbeat and rolling, with full-bodied guitar, driving rhythm and a strong vocal presence. Alternately, “In Your City” starts with a rag-time piano and falls into a comfortable melody that showcases his beautiful vocals.

It isn’t quite accurate to say that Jennings sounds raw, because his performance is quite polished. Rather, there isn’t any mixing done to alter the vocals. His voice is the musical equivalent of a woman who goes without makeup and looks good doing it.

Many of Mason Jennings’s songs have a spiritual theme to them. “I Love You and Buddha Too” is a call for all religions to realize their sameness, saying “Oh Jesus, I love you / And I love Buddha too / Rama Krishna Guru Dev / Dao de Jing and Muhammad,” and follows with “we are all a part of you.”

In The Ever is a relaxed, feeling-good album that declares a spiritual worldview without preaching at you. It has impressive vocals and catchy lyrics, and I am constantly catching myself dancing a little in my chair when I listen to it. Mason Jennings is an artist with a lot of talent, and I’d love to see him gain widespread acclaim. Maybe he’ll do it with this album.

If you can catch a single concert in the next year or so, I highly recommend checking out Mason Jennings as he performs his 2008 album. I’ll be seeing him again when I get the chance.

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