Strange Time to Be Alive
(Easy Eye Sound)
4 out of 5 stars
Videos by American Songwriter
To his credit, on 2020’s full length debut, unconventional singer/songwriter Early James had reviewers stretching their literary muscles trying to describe his multi-hyphenated sound.
Like Tom Waits, whose music James’ somewhat approximates, Early is a man out of time. There’s nothing either contemporary or particularly retro about his blues/folk/jazz/country gumbo. Rather it exists in its own distinct bubble, a composite of genres that morphs around each of these dozen tracks on his second effort.
Kudos to Dan Auerbach for finding this guy, signing him, and producing both this and his first album. Similar to other Easy Eye label artists, James’ eclectic approach is brilliantly idiosyncratic. No one sounds like him. Or even comes close.
Those exposed to his first album, won’t be surprised with this equally challenging and quirky follow-up. Some selections like the thumping “Harder to Blame” have a bit of Les Claypool meets Danny Elman intensity (Into the wind I spit/I call it a chance of rain) as the music swirls, jabs and pokes with jagged guitar lines and pumping beats. That leads into the acoustic tropicalia of “If Heaven is a Hotel” seemingly plucked out of a Jimmy Buffett nightmare. Then it’s off to the swampy soul binge of “Wasted and Wanting” as James’ vocal scoots around journeyman drummer Jay Bellerose’s jungle tom toms and longtime shotgun riding stand-up bassist Adrian Marmolejo’s jazzy excursions.
Fellow iconoclast Sierra Ferrell makes a stunning vocal cameo on “Real Low Down Lonesome,” bringing a Billie Holiday feel to a duet that approximates a country goes Latin tango out of Waits’ Rain Dogs period. It’s a clear highlight on an album that has plenty of them. On the marshy/twisty “My Sweet Carmelia,” the Waits vibe is so strong as the song shifts gears from dark to light, you may be checking the credits to be sure it’s not a cover.
The sessions were captured in just three days, resulting in a looseness and improvisation that works to the album’s benefit. It’s the case with the Sinatra-styled nightclub closing time, noir vibe of the piano led “Pigsty” and the languid after-hours folk/jazz of “Something for Nothing.” When James goes solo acoustic on the Delta blues wrung through the wringer “Dance in the Fire,” you realize these songs could fare just as well stripped down to the basics as with the stunning accompaniment that Auerbach as producer provides and molds.
There’s nothing predictable about James. That may make it tough to swallow for those who prefer to color within the lines. But for the more adventurous, Early James is, well, right on time.
Photo courtesy REK Media