Jennings's hometown popularity is not merely a case of regional jingoism. His self-titled debut, released in 1997, introduced him as a one-man band -- responsible for the production and multi-instrumentation on the spare eight-song disc. Mason Jennings featured oddly metered but undeniably catchy love songs delivered with a warm, sharp inflection. The album was full of lyrically simple, inspiring odes to love's moral high ground. Birds Flying Away, issued in 2000, found Jennings playing with a band and expanding his lyrical themes to include politically charged ruminations on Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers and media exploitation, as well as devotion and loss.
Jennings is now supporting a third release, Century Spring. While not a complete departure from his first two efforts, the album finds the songwriter and budding producer in the midst of a growth spurt. Major labels, reportedly, have been courting him for years, but Century Spring suggests he is doing fine on his own: The album boasts a decidedly tighter mix and warmer production than the two that came before it. The standout track, "Sorry Signs on Cash Machines," features light piano flourishes that accentuate the singer's irresistible falsetto chorus; the song is the strongest bid for Triple A radio play found here. "Killer's Creek," which sounds like a late Ben Folds Five outtake, showcases the hand-in-glove harmonies of Jennings and bassist/vocalist Robert Skoro. A rare electric guitar paces "New York City," while "Dewey Dell" is a dreamy dual-vocal harmony with acoustic guitar and bass accompaniment. "Bullet," the album's lone hokey track, features Jennings attempting a winter-white pseudorap; the track still manages to charm with brilliantly sadistic passages ("This song is a joke/Funny like my finger in your bicycle spokes"). "East of Eden" is the only song to suffer from his move to a more professional production style: The song lacks any feeling of immediacy and instead merely dawdles.
Perhaps as a reminder of the minimalist style that characterizes his early work, Century Spring closes with a spare dirge that features only Jennings's weary voice and acoustic guitar. Perhaps the Minnesota media is correct: The meek shall inherit this earth.