If you're unfamiliar, two years ago, Jayber Crow came out with The Farmer and the Nomad, a sunny little E.P. that I couldn't take off rotation for months. Since then, the odd smattering of demos has popped up on the band's Myspace page, leaving me with a serious hankering for JB's listener-friendly brand of folk pop.
In the years between the release of The Farmer and Two Short Stories, the pair has grown up -- both in and out of the studio. The change is audible on the record. "As with anything, with more time comes change," lead vocalist and guitarist Hawkins said.
Musically, Hawkins and multi-instrumentalist Nelson have a better handle on the subtleties of their instruments. Where The Farmer was an explosion of energy, Two Short Stories has found itself more comfortable in the art of actually crafting a song. There's no lack of energy, but the band has grown more skilled at channeling said energy to create emotion rather than just excitement. For example, songs like "The Limited Voice of the American Crow" and "Song of the Jack Pine" develop a wonderful sense of urgency that was missing on their debut E.P. Upbeat songs have also found themselves embracing the subtle nuances that can be created by even the most simple of instrumentation. "Drinking Song of a Germinating Seed," for example, tempers an excitable chorus with basic banjo plucks during the verse. The choice to balance the mellow with the loud causes the audiences' attention to shift back and forth constantly, thus keeping it focused precisely where it needs to be. It's a subtle songwriting choice, but it's extremely effective in driving the song forward. The band's tinkering with songwriting amounts to a change in sound which keeps them innovating without losing their fundamental "Crowness." "The little things make a difference. We use our instruments a little different," Nelson said. "We're always trying new things, but we're not trying to reinvent things."
The expansion of their sound, while holding firm to their roots, is a great thing for Jayber Crow at this point in their career. By building an album of what Hawkins described as "simple folk songs," they're giving their established fan base what they want. By pushing their sound subtly, they're allowing themselves to grow in a very organic way. For a band that is just coming to light in the Minnesota scene, this is a perfect album. It asserts the musical identity the band has already built without growing static. As a longtime fan, I couldn't be happier with the album.
Thematically, Two Short Stories is broken into two parts: "Freeze and Thaw" and "What Is This Wilderness?" "I kind of wanted to do two E.P.s," Hawkins said. "We structured it to be two parts that have similar themes."
While The Farmer and the Nomad was written right after both members graduated from college and therefore deals with questions of identity and of finding one's place in the world, Two Short Stories comes from a more mature perspective, exploring biology and faith among others. Originally titled Crumble, Crumble, Two Short Stories also explores the transience of life. This theme is continued in the album packaging. Printed on recycled paper with vegetable ink, the packaging is biodegradable. Containing a hand-written letter on the inside cover and original woodcuts done by Jane Becker Nelson on the cover, Hawkins and Nelson managed to put together a package that reflects the handmade earnesty and simplicity of their songs. It's lovely stuff -- I don't normally comment on album art in reviews, but I'm really impressed with this particular piece. Two Short Stories can be ordered from JayberCrow.com. Go order it. It's an excellent album. That isn't something I say often without qualifying it somehow, but there it is. I have nothing bad to say about this album, and every second that you spend not owning a copy is a second you're wasting.