One way or another, every folk singer channels the ghost of Woody Guthrie. Either they play from his tough, serious side (the sorrowful, spiritually acute "Bound for Glory" balladeer), or they play from his softer, sometimes schmaltzy side (the Okie politico, the "let's go a-drivin' in the car-car, brrap-brrap-brap" easy rider). If the channel's an extreme of the serious side, you might get, say, Leonard Cohen. If it's an extreme of the sentimental side, you get the folk-dandy who has his acoustic smashed by John Belushi in Animal House.
In recent years, Guthrie's serious side has been conjured up by few--Will Oldham, Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, maybe--while the softer side seems to have found a thousand mediums.
On his fourth album, Use Your Voice, Mason Jennings, too, channels the softer side. The 28-year-old writes light, sweet love songs about his wife. He writes songs about looking up from his surfboard off the coast of Australia and understanding the meaning of life. He picks melodies on the strings above the neck of his guitar with the seriousness of a nursery-school song. When he sings, his voice flies giddily into falsetto, dips comically into baritone. Even when he does approach more serious subjects, you still imagine him grinning behind the microphone--maybe even dancing a little jig as he sings. Jennings is just one of those happy, but deep, souls in the world.
"For me," Jennings says of songwriting, "it's like trying to start a family. I really appreciate the values of a strong family. Which start from love. So whether it's the loss of love, or getting love, that's where I start from."
When the songs lean to the happier side of love, Jennings' strongest suit is that he knows when to wax goofy and when to straighten up--most of the time--and it's this balance that's won over most of his fans. His live shows are happy places to hang out; not so quiet you can't dance, not so loud you can't hear the lyrics (which are written smartly enough to make you feel like you're having fun with a purpose).
The kids there are mostly white, heterosexual girls. They're not the neo-folkies who go to see Will Oldham or make tapes of Neutral Milk Hotel bootlegs for each other. If the two crowds mixed, somebody would end up yelling "Judas" at the stage. Jennings fans have gotten a burned copy of one of the Minnesota songwriter's CDs from a friend, or they've downloaded stuff from the Internet--to which the decidedly indie Jennings attaches most of his success.
He knows that he owes his popularity to "a lot of Internet stuff, downloading and all that. But then I think when people see the live show they realize I'm really just a person, like them. And that's my goal: I don't want to separate myself from the crowd."
Like any folk singer worth his salt (or in it for the long haul, which he says he decided for certain while floating on the Australian surfboard), Jennings has to veer toward--or at least hint at--that tough/serious side, too. Use Your Voice includes a somber ode written to Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone just after the progressive politician's death in a plane crash. For his second album, Birds Flying Away, he wrote angry songs, even delving into history books to find inspiration for an homage to victims of the famous Duluth, Minn., lynching in 1920.
It's in "Godless," a fiery rant off his debut record (which was recorded tastefully lo-fi and may be the only one the Oldham crowd could get into), where he faces the dark side most fully and with the most sincerity. Listening to him take on the voice of a man sought for the murder of his girlfriend's rapist feels the same way listening to "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" feels. The voice-cracking anger with which he belts out the song's "rat-a-tat-tat-tat" refrain makes your hair stand on end. Which is exactly the way it makes him feel.
"You know a song is good when you get chills when you write it," he says. "And you realize you haven't eaten all day and it's dark outside. And you look in the mirror and you're wearing the same clothes you were wearing two days ago."
Mason Jennings plays with Beautiful Girls Saturday, March 13, at the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 233-1994. 8 pm. $14. All ages.