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Mason Jennings: uplifting music

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen Times.Minneapolis singer-songwriter Mason Jennings has released the CD, "In the Ever."
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produced by Jennings (Brushfire Records)

Mason Jennings, a 32-year-old singer-songwriter from Minneapolis, is not the first one to blur the lines in his lyrics between romantic love and the love of God. But on “In the Ever,” he does it with humor, a light touch and no forced mystery. His overwhelmingly upbeat lyrics makes it not matter whether he’s singing about a hottie he met in some club, or the Lord Almighty. This is uplifting music. And Jennings’ near-deadpan singing, and the low-fi, acoustic production takes away any mushiness that may come with that.

“I Love You and Buddha Too” (“Ramakrishna, Gurudev”) ” definitely not about a girl. But definitely an indication of Jennings’ openness to all things: “Why do some people say/ That there is just one way to love you God.” “Your New Man,” though ” definitely about a girl, and the guy she’s with now. And definitely funny: “Girl, please don’t say he tucks his shirt in please/ Please don’t say he wears a gold chain … please.”

Slightly more vague are “Never Knew Your Name” and “Something About Your Love,” both of which captivate with a roughly defined, but hopeful spirituality.

produced by Jim James and Joe Chiccarelli (ATO Records)

Having listened repeatedly to Kentucky rock band My Morning Jacket’s two previous studio albums, “It Still Moves” and “Z,” I was duly impressed. And I figured I had the band figured out, with the whole crunchy guitar thing, the mix of psychedelic and Southern.

I started listening to “Evil Urges” from a digital stream, and assumed there had been some mix-up in what I had accessed. This sounded not like My Morning Jacket; in fact, it didn’t sound like any one particular band. This was like a mix tape of uncovered nuggets: modern psychedelic funk, with a bad-ass falsetto singer who I couldn’t quite pin down; then something like Bowie-meets-the Stooges in an unsanctioned ’70s recording session; then the country side of Neil Young, with doses of ’70s pop tossed in. Not till I focused in on “I’m Amazed,” with its raunchy, reckless guitar solo, could I accept that this really was My Morning Jacket, and that, as good as they were before, they’re now far more ambitious and accomplished.

But My Morning Jacket, led by singer-guitarist Jim James, kept going. “Thank You Too!” channels George Harrison, with its lush production, the sense of absolute grace, and one of the most unapologetically pretty choruses since the days of AM radio. “Sec Walkin” recalled the Neil Young in his country, but with more layers added to the customary steel guitar sound. And lurking around every corner, reminding you who you were listening to, were those reverb-heavy power chords, and James’ yearning howl.

Or, if this doesn’t do it for you, and you want the more tradition-bound My Morning Jacket, go to the Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” where James, backed by the band Calexico, sings Dylan’s “Goin’ to Acapulco” on a bandshell, in whiteface, brilliantly. It’s the musical highlight of the movie.

produced by Brian Ahern (Nonesuch)

Over her last few albums, Emmylou Harris soared beyond what she could probably have even hoped for. On 2000’s “Red Dirt Girl,” the singer par excellence became, for the first time, the writer of an entire album, and a fine one. She showed she was no fluke as a writer with 2003’s “Stumble Into Grace,” and again abandoned country for a more atmospheric sound. With 2006’s “All the Roadrunning,” she teamed with Mark Knopfler for another country-rock offshoot, not so different from her work 30-plus years ago with Gram Parsons.

The title “All I Intended to Be,” then, could be read as a statement of modesty. The album is a retreat, of sorts ” back to simple, acoustic settings; mostly cover songs; and a reunion, after 25 years, with Brian Ahern, who produced Harris’ early albums. But if this is a step back, then Harris returns to older ways and themes with confidence that she can improve on past high-water marks.

Her read on Mark Geronimo’s “Broken Man’s Lament” is backed mostly by an acoustic guitar, but Harris’ voice finds every sad ounce. Sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle join Harris to co-write and sing two tunes ” “How She Could Sing the Wildwood Flower” and “Sailing Around the Room” ” and it’s all old-timey, gather in the parlor, music-making. But it’s heavenly, and Harris’ voice is just at home with the other A-list Nashville guests here: Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, and Dolly Parton, who duets on Harris’ elegant, regret-filled “Gold.”

produced by Nick Gold (World Circuit)

Orchestra Baobab formed in 1970 in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, taking the name of the upscale club, the Baobab, where they had a regular gig. By the mid-’80s, the band’s style, which mixed Cuban rhythms with a relaxed African vibe, had grown out of fashion, and they disbanded. An album which had been recorded, “Pirate’s Choice,” sat unreleased for seven years.

When an expanded version of “Pirate’s Choice” was issued in 2001, interest in Orchestra Baobab was stirred to the point that the band reformed, and recorded “Specialist in All Styles,” produced by African superstar Youssou N’Dour and featuring Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer.

“Made in Dakar,” featuring new songs and some reworked tunes from the band’s first incarnation, does little to expand the Baobab sound, rhythmic yet laid-back. But they remain a top-notch group, and the extension of their recording career is welcomed.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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