Mason Jennings & Guster: Part 3

By album number three, it was clear that both Mason Jennings and Guster turned a significant corner in their recording career. It’s debatable that both “Century Spring” from Mason and Guster’s “Lost and Gone Forever” are their defining achievements to date. I say debatable because, “Century Spring” is certainly Mason’s tightest work to date. Top to bottom there isn’t a weak song. It’s a romantic album, filled with catchy hooks, a wider musical palette and timeless songs.

Guster, on the hand, has been constantly evolving their sound and their lineup (hello, Joe Pisapia), much to the enjoyment of some (myself included) and much to the dismay of many longtime fans (I know of too many to name that detested their latest album). “Lost and Gone Forever,” then, is sort of a relic. The final Guster album composed of principally just two guitars and bongos. It’s also the pinacle for their happy/upbeat melody and cynically pessimistic lyrics.

Mason Jennings – Century Spring

The album dropped in March of 2002 on Bar None and Architect Records. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes the record is a rumination on friendship, love, and death. Filled with sketches of busy city streets, motorcycle accidents, breezy fields, the songs find Mason turning thematically 180 degrees from his previous album. “Century Spring” is, in many ways, a romantic lament for the things that make life worth all the pain and heartache.

It begins with mid-tempo “Living in the Moment.” His voice has found an even groove to sing in. Off beat and unusual sure, but no longer is there any hint of a singer other than Mason’s unique troubadour stylings. “I thought I could live forever, here on my own, it seems things were so much better out here on my own.” The song’s narrator begins alone in the world thinking he’s got it good. Though he is alone, there is an optimism to things which pervades the entire album.

One wonders if it was Mason’s changing personal life, a marriage and love afterall, can make a man feel better about his lot in life. On “Sorry Signs on Cash Machines” he’s got a restless soul, pleading “I know true love don’t love like anybody else. I know your heart don’t beat like anybody else. . . C’mon baby let’s see what we’re made of.” He’s added piano to his sound and it’s a welcome change, as it creates that romantic, spring time vibe at the heart of the record.

But even with the piano, “New York City” has maybe the best guitar hook he’s ever written. Catchy as hell. When he sings out, “New York City, you’re so pretty, all your faces going places. I believe if you fall in love. I believe if you fall in love, you should jump right in.” The thudding bassline coming in just as the second “you should jump right in!” It’s like in that instant, that explosion of positivity, you’re feeling like the first time you fell in love, the first time you felt like the best version of yourself.

Even despite the jokey and almost out of place “Bullet,” the album never loses steam even with several slow tempo, piano ballads. Just Mason’s voice digging for emotional depth, on the songs “Forgiven,” “Century Spring” and “Dewey Dell.” For less musicians to put three slow songs right in the middle of an album would just kill it’s momentum. Not Mason though.

The beautiful affair winds down with “Killer Creek.” A song about a deadly motorcycle accident, as a metaphor for a failing relationship. The piano bangs staccato third-octive notes. “All is lost if trust is broken, help me understand. Promise me, you won’t let me go… talk to me, please I beg you, I’m a wounded man.” It’s the wreckage of a helpless man trying to make sense of the pain around him, hopeful to the last note.

Though he’s come close since, Mason hasn’t quite scaled the heights he achieved on this album. Which is saying a lot, since we feel like he set the bar pretty high.

MP3: Mason Jennings – “Century Spring” / “Killer Creek” / “New York City”

Guster – Lost and Gone Forever

Signed to major label, Sire, this time around the boys of Guster found themselves in the studio with a sizable recording budget, uberproducer Steve Lillywhite, and a host of guest appearances from artists like Page McGonnell of Phish, Karl Denson, and bassist Tony Levin. It got them major airplay, a slew of new fans, tons of props, and really cemented their status in the musical world. In a weird way, we’ve come to expect indie bands to make the jump to a major label with huge expectations for the major label debut. See The Decemberists or Death Cab For Cutie, to name to recent entries. Back in 1999, Guster was that band.

“Lost and Gone Forever” feels like it could have been a lost recording from the Beach Boys. The harmonies in Guster have never been tighter, never been more pronounced, never been equaled. One need not listen any further than to the supposedly 88-part harmony that closes “All the Way Up to Heaven.”

It’s a bittersweat affair, a more adult alternative sound, but from the get go on opener “What You Wish For” when they sing “woke up today, to everything gray and all that I saw, just kept going on and on.” It’s monotonous melody pushes home the feeling of suburban numbness. That feeling that nothing will ever get better no matter how hard you try.

There’s a nice use of a typewriter as a percussion instrument on “Barrell of a Gun.” It’s interesting that even with the larger budget the album feels like the album the guys have always wanted to create. Often times darkly funny, great harmonies and great songwriting. A band knows they’ve made a great album when it’s almost inconceivable they could top it. “Lost and Gone Forever” was that album, which is surprising that on their next two albums they’ve managed to raise the bar each time.

Adam Gardner began to fade into the background on this album, no longer is he a co-lead vocalist. Instead he compliments Ryan Miller on songs like, “Either Way” or “Center of Attention” he acts as a counterbalance. Often bringing the song back into morose territory with his deep baritone.

Fans from the get go were rewarded with a studio version of longtime live favorite “Happier.” It’s really the one song where Gardner gets to take the spotlight and he makes the most of it, on what is, the standout track.

Though many consider this Guster’s finest album, we consider it a harbinger of things to come and a wet goodbye kiss to the jammy/hippie sound of their youth.

MP3: Guster – “So Long” / “I Spy” / “Happier” / “Barrell of a Gun”

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