Whispered whimsy: Tunes to cuddle by

In case you didn't know, it's kind of a magical time to be a young musician. In exchange for the less than impressive sums you earn from a summer of mowing lawns, or from changing the grease at Micky D's, you can now acquire all the pieces you need to set yourself up quite a nice little recording studio in your house (or your parents' house).

Suddenly it's like living in Abbey Road Studios 24-7 (George Martin not included). A Tascam Blem 8-Track Digital Portastudio 788 only costs about $599.99, roughly the same amount I paid for my Yamaha analog 4-track back in the day, and if that's not progress, I don't know what is.

Remember, Sgt. Pepper was recorded on nothing more complex than two 4-tracks linked together into a makeshift 8-track, so with only about $500, you can greatly surpass the recording technology found on a Beatles, Stones, or '60s Motown record.

With this recent vast improvement in home recording technology, it has not been uncommon to see musicians foregoing entering a "real" studio at all; instead, they release their home recordings, once regarded as "demos," as finished products.

Songwriter James Mason is one such musician, and his debut release, Carnival Sky, speaks volumes about the benefits of the DIY (Do It Yourself) ethos. This 10-track acoustic mix of whimsy and whispered words is one of the best local albums I've heard for ages, with songs that sound like they might have been recorded softly late at night, in an effort to leave sleeping co-habitants undisturbed.

Mason's writing and singing style are probably easiest to compare to the late Nick Drake's, but influences can be seen of both Elliot Smith and, at times, Pink Floyd's problem-ridden Roger Waters. Instruments are not a sizable commodity on Carnival Sky– most songs contain just two acoustic guitars, playing in unison, sometimes a bass, and then often another instrument ranging from the aforementioned accordion to an organ. There are drums here and there on the album, but they are pushed far in the background, merely keeping the time and adding to the atmosphere of the piece instead of driving the songs.

The centerpieces of Carnival Sky are Mason's flowing guitar work (for which his older brother, Christian, is also credited on three of the disc's tracks)– which is about as far from showy as you can get– and Mason's vocals. Breathy and relaxed, they turn the songs found here into lullabies of sorts, making the album the perfect soundtrack to a sleepy (and/or rainy) Sunday afternoon. Utterly romantic fans of Carnival Sky might even find more "couple-centric" uses for its 30 minutes, but I'm not admitting anything.

Mason has recently taken to performing around Charlottesville, and I urge you, the fan of folk, the soft, and the romantic, to take the time to go out and see him-­ how about this Thursday at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar? I guarantee you won't regret the trip.