Beau Jennings has certainly been around, though chances are his name is still unfamiliar to most. He’s played in a number of bands that have been lovingly mentioned on this site in the past, including Lasso, Circle of Birds, and Lewis… and there’s probably been a few that have been forgotten. However, Cheyenne is purely Jennings’ baby, a “revolving door” project that finds any number of collaborators (including, for this recording at least, members of Ester Drang) coming in and helping Jennings record his gentle, lo-fi bedroom pop.
These four songs are the sort of stuff would be quite at home next to the Elliot Smith, Damien Jurado, Hayden, Nick Drake, and Barzin CDs on your shelf — gentle, unassuming music that’s full of atmosphere and intimacy. Utilizing sparse guitarwork (acoustic, electric, and slide), brushed drums and other percussion (such as vibes), the occasional loop or field recording, and lovely keys and organ, Jennings’ music won’t immediately leap out and grab you — but its simple charms and honest emotion are bound to grow on many listeners.
As might be expected from this sort of music, the songs are fairly downbeat and mellow, weaving journal entry-like stories of heartache and pining. For example, “That Word Long Written Down” finds Jennings playing the role of a traveller observing a woman and her daughter in some bustling roadside store.
In the best Jurado tradition, ambiguities filter through the song — we catch only glimpses of the their conversation and learn little of their details — but their talk of St. Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus provides an intriguing metaphor for the situation Jennings’ character finds himself in. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the mood to have some lonesome harmonica and slide guitar drift through the song tumbleweed-style.
If the EP has one slight weakness, it would be the tendency Jennings has to try and make his voice sound as strained and raspy as possible (such as the otherwise lovely “The California Side,” which could almost pass for a Bedhead/Ester Drang collaboration). While such a vocal approach does lend a certain amount of world-weariness to the song, it can also feel a bit too obvious and melodramatic.
“Believe & Escape” is the EP’s shining moment, with a gorgeous organ haunting Jennings’ vocals and plucked guitar as he sings of love and murder. The music is absolutely lovely, easily comparable to the finest moments of the Circle of Birds EP, and provides a stark contrast to the dark, morbid imagery of Jennings’ lyrics (“Well he’d been out late and he’d had his drink/And he came home to have his fun/Saturday night Martha told me what happened/And Sunday evening I shot my gun”). On this track, the lo-fi production particularly shines.
I know the whole 4-track ethic is pretty ubiquitous and clichéd these days, but I’m still a sucker for artists who are willing to leave the whisper of tape hiss in their songs, as well as background sounds (such as fingers picking away at guitar strings, or of someone taking a breath or licking their lips just before singing). When done right, as it is here, it seems to make the music both more ephemeral and more intimate… which works perfectly for Cheyenne.
Apparently, the band is currently working on a full-length; I just hope Jennings doesn’t decide to try and smooth out his music’s rough edges (although a few tweaks here and there wouldn’t be a bad thing) or go for a slicker sound or better production value. Stuff that’s this simple and sparse — and yet also this good — is hard to find.