Jennings & Keller

As the Universe Unfolds

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On their debut album Susan's House, Jennings & Keller were a showcase for the songs of Laurie Jennings Oudin, who wrote or co-wrote all the selections and sang them while accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, with Dana Keller adding lead work on lap steel or dobro. As the Universe Unfolds, their second collection, is a much more elaborate affair. For one thing, it's not just the two principals; five other musicians add drums, keyboards, and other instruments. And Keller, who once again produces, plays more instruments himself, including electric guitar and bass, as well as pedal steel guitar. He also writes songs and sings a few lead vocals, making this the more balanced album between the two. The music, which was pretty much straight singer/songwriter folk on the first album, varies from folk-rock to country this time. All of this makes As the Universe Unfolds a more professional-sounding and varied set than its predecessor. That puts less focus on the individual songs as songs, which is just as well. Oudin seems more interested in writing character studies and story songs than she was on Susan's House, sometimes to good effect. As usual, she is better when she is more specific, as on "Missed My Plane to Cincinnati," which has the potential to be a country hit for someone, than when she is writing self-help platitudes, as she does on "Your Heart Holds the Truth." Keller has only a get-me-over voice, and his writing leans heavily to clich├ęs. ("One door opens,/another one's closin'," begins "No Words," and in "Never Mine," he observes, "If you love it let it go/If it's yours it'll come back.") Maybe he should stick to playing, at which he is accomplished. In terms of sound, As the Universe Unfolds is a big step forward for Jennings and Keller; in terms of material, they remain promising, but uneven.

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