Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Double Feature: Joshua James - Album Review

Album Review: Build Me This (* * * *)

Provo, Utah is not exactly the entertainment capital of the West, but it's where I and many others discovered the songwriting talent of folk artist Joshua James - a native of Nebraska who found some success here, as unlikely as that seems, and has been steadily expanding his influence ever since. James released one of my favorite folk albums of 2007, his debut entitled The Sun Is Always Brighter - which received more than a little deserved acclaim - and now he's back with an even more accomplished and impressive effort, Build Me This. By opening up the mostly solemn and withdrawn sound of his debut to included a bigger helping of rock 'n' roll, James covers more territory with convincing ease and emotionally powerful results on this sophomore effort, which again belies his youth (25 years old) with a remarkable sense of maturity and world-weary wisdom.

From the opening lines of the gospel-tinged "Coal War," it's clear that James has a more ambitious aim in mind for Build Me This. "Ain't cuttin' my hair 'till the good Lord comes," he sings - at first alone and then with several more voices backed my foot stomps and hand claps before the guitars and drums kick in for a full-fledged rock tune that shifts from moments of fiery indignation to melancholy musing and back again. Already he's set the bar higher for himself - and he doesn't disappoint throughout the rest of the record. The organ and piano-heavy "Magazine," the politically charged "Mother Mary," and his most intense tune yet, "Black July" show a different side of James during the album's first half than we've seen before , and it's electrifying. Of course, there are several of the melancholy folk ballads that filled his debut, like the lonesome yet sweet "In the Middle" and a bittersweet search for redemption, "Lawn Full of Marigolds," that's particularly heartbreaking. But even during the album's more sedate second half, the songs rarely stay quiet as James continues to add emphasis to to his songwriting with music that frequently expands into a bigger, noisier climaxes from their modest beginnings. "Daniel" starts with a haunting organ under Joshua's unique high tenor voice before erupting into a mess of keys, drums, and guitars for a forceful chorus, while "Wilted Daisies" opens as a simple, bouncy folk tune and ends as an anthematic rocker.

As a songwriter, James is still obsessed with religious quandaries, social change, and his personal demons, but he generally avoids cliches, preferring detailed narratives to simple, relatable declarations. His intense personality and vivid imagery are frequently captivating and set him apart from his more tame folk-rock contemporaries. Also, most everything he tries lyrically and musically on Build Me This works quite well, resulting in songs that are usually an improvement on his previous material and creating a diverse and intriguing set of tracks to dig into and explore. Once again, Joshua James has crafted an album that easily competes with the best folk music that the year has to offer - you don't want to pass this up.