Early James | Singing for My Supper | (Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch)
4 out of 5 stars
This isn’t Alabama born James’ first stab at recording—he released an EP with his band The Latest a few years ago-but it’s his full length debut. Kudos to co-producer/Easy Eye Sound studio and label owner Dan Auerbach for plucking James out of obscurity and giving his limited commercial rootsy, bluesy folk and singer/songwriter fare a shot with the visibility Auerbach’s fame as Black Keys frontman provides.
James, known to his mom as Frederick James Mullis Jr., has arrived fully formed for his shot at the big time. He brandishes a distinctive voice employed in ten tunes with a slight retro vibe as they shift from Latin styled (“Gone as a Ghost”), late night, closing time noir (“Clockwork Town,” “It Doesn’t Matter Now”) and earthy blues with countrypolitan leanings (“Easter Eggs”). None of this sounds like anything you’ve heard in the past 30 years or so but neither is it particularly time-dated. His vocals are similar to those of E-Street Band and solo artist Nils Lofgren, yet there is little anyone would consider rock here.
There are upbeat, even pop elements to the jaunty “All Down Hill” which is something you might hear coming out of the radio in the early 70s. But generally the groove is more sinewy, thoughtful and swampy as in “Way of the Dinosaur.” He laments the loss of childhood innocence in “High Horse,” the album’s first video—exotically presented in black and white– where he sings “Childlike belief, time’s been the thief all along.” The atmospheric opening to “Blue Pill Blues” turns edgy as James sings of quitting anti-depressant medication (“It’s cooking my goose with a cast iron noose”) as his terse vocals bring grit and gravitas to the mid-tempo blues, one of the disc’s toughest tunes. Likewise “Stockholm Blues” has an easy flowing melody not far removed from Steely Dan, and comparable to that band’s approach. James’ lyrics are subtly twisted and dark, even as the music seems placid.
The singer/songwriter keeps his tunes tight—only one breaks the four minute mark at 4:01—and the entire disc clocks in at just over a half hour. But there is plenty to chew on and, like Logan Ledger, Early James is a young artist infused with the ghosts of another time. His shape-shifting music is impossible to pigeonhole but after spending 35 minutes with it, you’ll understand that Auerbach has once again found a new, distinctive, impressively mature and strikingly focused talent with a bright future.