With each passing album since 1998, Minnesota-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Mason Jennings has expanded and diversified his sound. What started in rustic, sparse folk traditions has evolved into peppy acoustic pop on his 11th album, Always Been.
Jennings enlisted lots of help to broaden his songwriting and recording approaches on his latest LP. Guest musicians—including Neil Young’s drummer Chad Cromwell, upright-bassist Gordon Johnson, string virtuoso David Mansfield and members of The Pines—contribute rich musical layers all over the record, while producer Bo Ramsey and mixer Jerry Boys (Buena Vista Social Club) streamline Jennings’ tunes’ sound so clean that nothing squeaks.
Always Been is almost cloyingly happy. Jennings sings about “how good it is to wake up in the morning and want to through your arms around the world” on “So Good.” The coy “Rainboots” gives musical “elevator eyes” to an unnamed character with its bouncy, up-and-down rhythms and riffs, while the ukulele-led, whistle closer “Just Try” feels almost “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”-era Disney. Even “Patti and Robert,” marked by whispering harmonies courtesy of Iris DeMent, focuses on the good times between its namesakes Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Although lacking the emotional depth of fan-favorites like “California,” “Be Here Now,” “Birds Flying Away” and others, Always Been remains a blithely positive record, if not a particularly affective one.