Shawn James – Shadows
I started this review with no idea who Shawn James was. I had no clue as to whether I was about to listen to Norwegian death metal or Dave Matthews. I had no preconceived notion about what it was that I was going to be reviewing. So when I say that I am impressed, blown away, and completely envious about the talent displayed on Shawn James’ debut album SHADOWS, rest assured I’m not engaging in any hyperbole whatsoever. This album is that good.
Shawn James deserves to be famous. His songwriting is clever and deep, his singing is superlative, and his songs are well-crafted and faultlessly executed. The production is top-notch, capturing atmosphere and the nuances of each instrument, without managing to sound overproduced or canned. What follows is my impressions of each song from the album. In any review that I’ve done so far, I’ve not ever gone so far as to encourage anyone to spend money. Times are tough for everybody. But if you love music that can stir your very soul, buy this album. Make this artist as famous as he deserves to be. Yes, I’m that impressed.
The Wanderer starts with a classic rock stomp-clap, making me initially wonder if I’d cued up “We Will Rock You” by Queen. Then the guitar kicks in, playing a minor-key arpeggio that sounds almost classical. It’s a beautiful-sounding acoustic, for sure, with a lot of atmosphere. You get the impression that he’s playing in a huge concert hall. I’m not sure what I’m about to hear at this point. The song could go so many places from here. It could go spacey Pink Floyd. It could go hard rock. I was literally on the edge of my seat wondering what I’m about to hear. Then Shawn James kicks in with a pure blues vocal straight out of Angola Prison. The sound effects are perfect in this song, making you think of chains on a road gang clanking in the sweltering heat of the Deep South. James’ vocals are perfectly suited for this track. He sings with the soul of Robert Johnson, but dead-on in tune. He goes through vocal histronics that would put warblers like Christina Aguilera to shame, because he does it so well. It’s not contrived, it’s not auto-tuned. This is real, gut-wrenching music. I think most of us have forgotten just how awesome a really talented musician can be with nothing but an acoustic, a story to tell, and a great voice.
A fuzzy hollowbody-sounding guitar sets the atmosphere of The Shadow, with some nice jazzy-sounding chords. The chain-clanking is back on this song, but this time it’s spooky as opposed to giving the impression of being shackled. The song’s about a son trying to escape the shadow of his father’s sins. This is pure old-school blues. “She left your sorry ass because you wouldn’t choose/your wife and son over your booze.”
James sets atmosphere and mood better than anybody I’ve heard since Roger Waters. A mournful train wails in the background of Funny Little Feeling, and you can hear the cars bumping along the tracks. Before any music ever kicks in, the theater of your mind has set the scene. A pure acoustic kicks in, and James begins singing this jazzy, moody piece. Imagine Norah Jones with testosterone, and you have a pretty good idea of the vibe. “I got a funny little feeling I ain’t going to make it home tonight.” Sometimes life gets in the way of the best-laid plans.
“…Waiting for the wind to change direction.” No Rest is a straight-up acoustic blues piece. Again, James’ incredible voice adds an element of greatness to what is otherwise just an acoustic blues piece. Hearing his voice on this song, I am again struck by the impression that I’m listening to one of the great Motown singers of its Golden Age, smacking headlong into Robert Johnson with a smattering of Wes Montgomery. It’s a combination that few could pull off even reasonably well. James flat-out kills the vocal on this piece. Envy doesn’t come close to describing how much I wish I could sing like this.
A slow, almost country-ish guitar feel starts off the song Eating Like Kings, setting a nice dark mood. This song has my favorite lyrics on the whole album, and that’s a bold statement. There’s a nice little mandolin part, and the background vocals are almost sinister. This sets the mood nicely for a song about the fall of mankind since Adam and Eve decided they were just as smart as God. “…It’s a snake eat snake world, we slither in serpentine pools. But we all took a bite and 6,000 years later, this apple’s getting harder to chew.” Greatness. I’m reminded of some old Kris Kristofferson songs from the early 70′s, with a little bit of a nod to, “Sympathy for the Devil.” His website indicates that a friend of his wrote this while waiting to come home from Afghanistan.
When Through The Valley kicks in, the guitar almost transports me back to the first time I saw THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. The music was absolutely phenomenal, as composed by the great Ennio Morricone. The elegant fingerpicked guitar’s beauty is completely eclipsed by the dissonant howling that we all know and love so well in the main theme. That’s the kind of mood the guitar initially sets for this song. And it works brilliantly in this song. “In my mind, my gun it comforts me, because I know I’ll kill my enemies when they come.” It’s a great spin on Psalm 23. “I can’t walk on the path of the right because I’m wrong.” We even get some whistling that makes the Morricone comparison even more valid with this song.
Flow begins with the words “I woke up to find the Earth was round one day.” Sometimes one’s preconceived notions of how things are in this world get shaken up drastically. The solution? “Flow like the river.” To say I’m impressed with the songwriting out of James is an understatement.
If That’s Love is a pure jazz torch song. James supplements his acoustic work with some nice piano and a touch of strings. There’s more instruments in this song than on all the others combined so far, but they do nothing to overshadow the pure soul James conjures in this song with only his voice. The emotional pitfalls inherent in falling into bed with somebody, then having them dump you make this song a bitter pill, to say the least. But the harsh truth often does leave an unpleasant aftertaste. It’s a great take on a subject in music that doesn’t ever portray the negatives of the morning after.
Pure bluegrass fiddle and a pure fingerpicked acoustic again create a soundscape of leaving the holler in Kentucky and venturing forth into the world. Insane takes an upbeat turn about a minute and eight seconds into the song, lightening the mood a bit with a mandolin. It’s a great song about running away to see the world.
The Thief And The Moon is a fairy tale (or is it a parable?) about a thief wanting to steal the light of the moon, and their conversation. The thief wants to rule the world in darkness, and all he’ll do to obtain his wealth. A spooky fiddle sets the mood of this Faustian fairy tale. The songwriting here is absolutely brilliant, and it’s a great statement of the folly of man’s pursuit of material things that just don’t last.
Proceeding with Midnight Dove, the fiddle and acoustic again set the mood of this song, mournful and yet wistful. “All that you got is hope…all that you need.”
The longest song on the album by far, Along Our Way talks about looking for a divine reason that never came. But the walk continued. There’s a neat dead space in the middle of the song, then a sad piano melody starts. A string section carries the melody through the rest of the song. The album is a perfect encapsulation of what this artist is capable of: anything from blues to classical. This little instrumental manages to capture James’ incredible diversity in one place. I’m reminded of Mark Snow’s main title theme to the short-lived MILLENNIUM tv series, which was one of my favorite pieces of music of all-time. This piece is every bit that good, showing that Shawn James is probably just as good a composer as he is a singer/songwriter. Let me emphasize yet again: that’s world-class talent.
Shawn James is impossible to categorize, but impossible not to love. I’ve often lamented the folly of pigeonholing an artist into one category, because the most talented of musicians are stifled by their labels. James’ SHADOWS is a perfect example of the folly of such pigeonholing. This artist deserves to be a household name, and this music should be heard by the world.