Mason Jennings & Guster: Part 4

We’re just gonna jump right into it today, since we’ve been dragging ass. Ever had one of those days, when you realize you’ve been staring at your computer screen the entire day and nothing gets done. On top of that we’ve been listening to the deliciously guilty bubblegum pop of Avril Lavigne and we won’t even apologize. Even despite her comatose performance (was she drugged up on Thorazin?) on SNL, we’re still digging the “hey! hey! you! you! I could be your girlfriend” chants and power chords. Yeah, yeah it’s cheesy we know. But still, we’re just saying, “Girlfriend,” off of The Best Damn Thing, is kinda fun to listen to. Makes us long for tooling around in the summer.

Today we’re looking back at the fourth studio albums from Mason Jennings and Guster.

Mason Jennings – Use Your Voice

This time around, Mason does another U-turn and rather than build off of the romantic heights he scaled with Century Spring, he takes it back to his folk-rock roots. It’s almost like he was listening to lots of Bobby Dylan or Neil Young. The sublime ten tracks, though they felt like a slight let down when the Use Your Voice was originally released, work as a companion piece to his second album, Birds Flying Away. This time Mason’s gone for the old time feel, with harmonica instead of piano, and exaggerating his casual speak/sing warble. He’s ruminating about late night drinking binges, building railroads, questioning his religion, and lamenting the loss of Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t included the happier times. Two of his happiest songs are found on this album, with “Keepin It Real” (originally intended for the Shrek 2 soundtrack) and “Lemon Grove Avenue.” The latter a wistful reminder of summer breezes blowing through hanging sheets and rustling the leaves on trees.

Though this album isn’t even close to being my favorite, in fact it’s probably the album I listen to the least, many of my most cherished songs by Mason are on this album. And in revisting it I’m struck by how much better it holds up than several of his efforts. It’s almost like running in a high school classmate whom you were indifferent towards in high school, only to realize later in life you make pretty good friends. Track list:

  1. Crown
  2. The Light (Part 2)
  3. Empire Builder
  4. Fourteen Pictures
  5. Lemon Grove Avenue
  6. Keepin’ It Real
  7. The Ballad of Paul and Sheila
  8. Southern Cross
  9. Drinking as Religion
  10. Ulysses

Guster – Keep It Together

Guster took some well deserved time off after recording Lost and Gone Forever. Though they toured constantly, it would almost four years before they followed up with a studio recording. Rumors began floating around that Guster would be adding piano, bass, banjo, and good forbid forgoing the bongos for an actual drum kit. From the sounds of it and the murmurs eminating out of Camp Guster, one would think the band decided to assissinate little children for kicks.

The truth is, there was no way the band, with their current sound would ever be able to top Lost and Gone Forever. It just wasn’t happening. If they were going to survive they would have to either take an abrupt left turn, a la Radiohead with Kid A, or tweak their sound just enough to satisfy their fans and leave them an exit strategy for further growth on all future records.

Keep It Together essentially manages to do this. It sounds like a Guster record, full of upbeat pop tunes and biting love songs and yet it sounds like it came from some indie band. It’s loaded with quirk, whether on the banjo infused “Jesus on the Radio,” or the nod to seventies prog rock on “Red Oyster Cult.” Several songs, like “Diane” or “Backyard” or the slow building “Come Downstairs and Say Hello” take the tempo down to a crawl and act as effective breathers for the mostly fast moving album. Guster proves they’re actually well-adjusted as many of these songs are love songs.

Current band mate Joe Pisapia makes his first appearance with the band on several of the tunes. Whether it’s his influence or not, Guster has crafted an album that manages to provide more pleasures than anything they previosly recorded. Whereas Lost and Gone Forever feels a bit strained, as if they were trying just a tad to hard, Keep It Together sounds like the carefree dude, who just happens to excell at whatever it is he’s doing, all the while making it look effortless. Repeat listens continue to reward in a giddy, childlike way. This album is like sinking your teeth into a bag of pop rocks candy and washing it down with a Pepsi. Track list:

  1. Diane
  2. Careful
  3. Amsterdam
  4. Backyard
  5. Homecoming King
  6. Ramona
  7. Jesus on the Radio
  8. Keep It Together
  9. Come Downstairs and Say Hello
  10. Red Oyster Cult
  11. Long Way Down
  12. I Hope Tomorrow is Like Today
  13. (Silence)
  14. Two at a Time (with Ben Kweller)

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