My first introduction to Mason Jennings was in 2000 at the now-defunct 21st Amendment in downtown Fargo, N.D. The bar was packed -- most of the patrons were loudly conversing, some were watching hoops on the large-screen TV.
Off in a corner, blocked off on two sides by posts and stacked equipment cases, were Jennings, his three bandmates and a handful of fans seated on the dirty floor in front of the stage, mesmerized by Jennings' on-stage confidence (a direct contrast to his off-stage shyness) and early tracks about politics, drinking and surfing.
Four years later, the Minneapolis troubadour's career has changed: The crowds are bigger and paying attention to his music -- it's not uncommon to run into a Minnesotan who has not only heard of Jennings, but would defend the singer's honor with fisticuffs if you dared compare him to a more popular, lesser talent such as Jack Johnson.
But the music and Jennings' confidence haven't changed a bit. His fourth album, "Use Your Voice" (Bar/None Records) is stripped down in a good way and a bad way: It sounds as if Jennings is giving an intimate folk show in your living room, but the 10 tracks clock in at a sparse 30 minutes. The three tracks that do rock are so relaxed they could rock you right into a pleasant slumber.
Jennings, with his smoky, soothing voice, mixes the sad lyrics he does so well ("I don't want no love for you honey/Deep, deep down in my heart") and the happy ones he does even better ("Keepin' it Real" would be an inane love song if anyone other than Jennings were at the microphone).
"Lemon Grove Avenue," despite its title, might be the sweetest folk melody Jennings has ever sung. As soon as you hear the humming lead-in, you'll want to move to the titular locale, not even bothering to pack your bags beforehand.
After his wife contributes harmonies on "The Ballad of Paul and Sheila," Jennings closes with a couple of throwbacks: the nicely titled, gradually upbeat "Drinking as Religion" ("Love is brutal/I can't stand/I wonder how you can") and "Ulysses," where Jennings sings, perhaps sarcastically, perhaps honestly, "... to my delight, the bottles were all taken."
Jennings is on the Web at www.masonjennings.com.
John Gregory, "Pictures From Home," rock (Atlantic)
John Gregory looks like Dave Grohl, sounds like John Mellencamp and writes songs that -- according to his press materials -- take cues from Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen comparisons might be a bit premature for this Los Angeles-based musician. However, if you're looking for something to fill the void between releases from the Boss, you could do a lot worse than Gregory's debut album, "Pictures From Home."
These 11 tracks blend together to form a tasty collection of road trip music, with a bit of nutrition thrown in. "Long Goodbye" might not have the storytelling detail of, say, "Thunder Road," but Gregory gets points for earnestness: "I didn't call to make you cry/I'm just trying to get you off my mind."
Mellencamp comparisons are more apt, for a few reasons: 1. Gregory's voice; 2. His tendency to write about simpler times ("I haven't felt real since '95/When I'd just close my eyes and just dive"); and 3. Mellencamp's drummer, Kenny Aronoff, heads up Gregory's studio band. The Hammond organ from Rami Jaffe of the Wallflowers is a welcome touch as well.
Without a doubt, the music is there, but the lyrics are a notch behind. "Victoria's Leaving," according to press materials, was inspired by the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks, but you wouldn't know it from the lyrics, not the way you know Springsteen is channeling 9-11 through most of "The Rising" album.
However, the catchy closing track "Living Proof" comes close to an early Boss vibe. "Pictures from Home" isn't proof that Gregory has it all figured out, but hold onto the disc as evidence of future greatness.
Gregory is on the Web at www.johngregory.com.
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