Mason Jennings performs at Gypsy Tea Room on February 20.
An adherent to the old-school folk method of emoting softly and carrying a big fingerpick, Mason Jennings is distinguishing himself among the immense flock of young male singer-songwriters clamoring to be heard on America's new folk scene. A high school dropout, Jennings knew in his preteen years that he wanted to be a professional musician and dedicated all his efforts to making that happen. He released his first record, Mason Jennings, at the tender age of 23, having eschewed major-label offers in favor of the freedom to write and record in the privacy and creative safety of his living room. Three albums later finds this mop-topped cutie adhering to the same standards with Use Your Voice (Bar/None), a collection of eclectic songs that runs the gamut from politically charged to good old-fashioned fun. This Minneapolis resident sounds at times like the love child of Bob Dylan (another harmonica-tootin' Minnesotan, come to think of it) and G. Love; in fact, "Empire Builder" and "Keepin' It Real" sound like outtakes from a Special Sauce recording session. Lest that sound horribly insulting, it should be noted that this is only an occasional occurrence on Use Your Voice, an impassioned, intimate affair that has the feel of a living-room concert performed just for you. Particularly striking is "The Ballad of Paul and Sheila," a heartbreaking eulogy for Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone--perhaps the last radical politician in this country--and his wife, who died in a wintry plane crash in October 2002. This fourth album is the work of a man who has hit his stride in life and is confident in his identity as an artist, a citizen, a husband and father. Aussie folk-poppers The Beautiful Girls open.