Cult bands are nearly impossible to critique. The people who'd be drawn to their style already like them, and nobody else much cares.
Yet surely no one appeals to a more disparate cult following than rootsy singer-songwriter Mason Jennings. He doesn't exactly draw the kind of cult you'd expect to see drinking the Kool-Aid together: surfers and Minnesotans. Yes, you read that right. When I worked for an online store that sold Jennings's catalogue, orders invariably came from either Santa Barbara or the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
The explanation is in Jennings's sound, reproduced nearly unchanged from his 1998 debut on his new album Use Your Voice. A native of Honolulu and a resident of Minneapolis, Jennings uniquely bridges alt-country and the laid-back, beach- and bong-friendly acoustic pop of surfer-turned-troubadour Jack Johnson. He'll tour with the likes of Johnson, yet still write songs about trains. The result is pleasant, transcontinental Americana.
For those outside southern California or the Twin Cities, Jennings's shtick is this: he has no shtick. His songs are heartfelt and stripped-down, released on independent labels like Bar/None or his own Architect. His lyrics are "simple", which occasionally entails profundity ("This conversation is a mountainside / It's a long way down and there's no place to hide" from "Fourteen Pictures") but just as often leads to cliché ("We're keepin' it real", goes the inexplicable refrain of what is otherwise a decent love song).
Meanwhile, the shtick of Use Your Voice is that it has less shtick than any Jennings album since his debut, relying only on live-sounding guitar, harmonica, bass, and drums. The unadorned recording is the perfect setting for Jennings's equally humble songwriting. "Crown" opens the album with a harmonica reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's classic Nebraska. For longtime fans, it's the same sound you first heard at Minneapolis' Fine Line Music Cafe or on your surfer friend's boom box.
A quiet, emotional tribute to the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila hits the mark precisely because of the arrangement. The lyrics to "Ballad of Paul and Sheila" fall short after the evocative first verse, but Jennings's fingerpicked guitar erases any cynicism. The wide-eyed sentimentalism I feel when I hear that song reminds me of what it must have been like to listen to John Denver before you realized your friends might make fun of you for tearing up to "Leaving on a Jet Plane." (Uh, of course I'm really talking about you there, not just using the conversational second-person.)
The upbeat "Lemon Grove Avenue" sounds like something Paul Simon should sing, even if the lyrics could be applied to many generic avenues. "Ulysses" is a grower, providing this brilliant couplet: "Oh, Jesus Christ, how I hate making phone calls / So I lead a lonely life". With references to green tea and even e-mail (probably a first in such an old-fashioned folk song), the tune about Jennings's quest to find a copy of Ulysses sums up his lifestyle much as Joyce's book encapsulated Dublin. It's an unpredictable tack for Jennings, really, given how far removed his songs are from modernist pretensions.
If one song on this record will unite both the Minnesota contingent and the beach bums, it's "Empire Builder". The lyrics seemingly belong to a Josh Ritter song -- "All day, every day I swing my hammer to the metal on the northern railway" -- but the loping, near-reggae rhythm and Hawaiian-sounding guitar fills could have appeared on Johnson's Brushfire Fairytales.
Use Your Voice is a respectable album, and acoustic guitar fans who haven't yet heard Mason Jennings may want to sample a track or two. Jennings devotees, of course, will buy it no matter what, probably concluding that it ranks just below his debut and just above Birds Flying Away in the Jennings canon.
And the rest of you? There's nothing on Use Your Voice that's different from his previous work, and despite a couple of solid tracks there is little that lives up to his best -- "Darkness Between the Fireflies", "Train Leaving Gray" or "California" -- and plenty of filler. In other words, if you're not listening by now, you probably don't care.