It’s possible to be too productive. While decades ago a lot of musicians pumped out many more records in a much shorter time than we’re used to today, it is easy to forget the reams of mediocre work this very often resulted in. A band like the Beatles were the exception, not the rule, as a group of extraordinary creatives who had the immense talent to put out thirteen superb albums in less than eight years. Conversely, Hawaii-born singer-songwriter Mason Jennings is among a comparatively small number of modern musicians whose bid to maintain an almost 1960s-esque work rate is arguably to the detriment of his records, Minnesota included.
The problem is not so much that the songs are poor—indeed at least from a lyrical perspective, there are some real gems here—but rather that Jennings has not dedicated to his tunes the time and polish that would bring them to their full potential. With just nine songs and less than 35 minutes with which to impress, one would think that Jennings would take the time to work each track to a shine, but what we are instead left with is a record which sounds oddly sparse and disappointingly under-developed.
Mid-album highlight “Rudy”, for example, flirts from start to finish with real wonder, but never quite makes it. Jennings’ absorbing tale of a despotic king oppressing a kind of fantasy pastoral community of which our host imagines himself a part is a songwriter’s playground, but the by-the-numbers arrangement fails to do the idea justice. The song’s acoustic guitar, drums, piano, and organ are functional enough, but leave it crying out for something more special to make the most of the drama as “good, kind Rudy” stands up to his greedy ruler.
While a few songs share this frustrating sparseness, Jennings’ songwriting is usually enough in itself to keep us occupied. While “Well of Love” could do more to involve us in its faux-Cuban rhythm, it has another agile set of lyrics to keep it afloat. Similarly, the somewhat languid ode to alcoholism “Wake Up” at least possesses the kind of self-effacing humour and whimsy Jennings can presumably write in his sleep by now. Still though, there exists a sense that, with all his experience, Jennings could put together a record which sounds fuller than this, more whole.
Brief and enjoyable but never spectacular, Minnesota is the sound of an established and experienced songwriter simply not meeting his substantial potential. Whether this is caused by a lack of ambition on Jennings’ part or—more likely—by a misplaced sense of urgency in rushing out yet another album, the end result is that attentions will wander to the more accomplished folk-pop records out there. Here’s hoping that Jennings will take some time out, focus more on making the most of his talent, and emerge with something more lasting and memorable next time around.
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// Notes from the Road
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