The most recent release from Tulsa musician Josh James, Asbestos Honey, has some really great moments and some not-so-great moments. James has also released an EP and another full-length LP with backing musicians called Painted in a Corner.
Asbestos Honey is a mix of pleasant, emotive songs with catchy melodies and also, unfortunately, some songs that are rather boring. For example, the album’s opener should normally be the place for an attention-grabbing number. But “Truth” is sadly wishy-washy and forgettable. The album improves vastly with the next song, “Rock Alone,” which has a bit of a Ryan Adams alt-country influence. The only problem is James’ overly breathy and strained vocals. If he loosened up a little and maybe didn’t try so hard (or at least sounded like he wasn’t trying really hard), the songs on Asbestos Honey would be much easier to listen to. And yet, the vocals on some songs, like the rockin’ “Ball and Chain” that has a fun falsetto vocal line, and the slow, folky “1829,” are much cleaner, clearer, and less self-conscious.
Josh James incorporates a wide range of genres, including country, folk, rock, and indie. The best songs on this album are the ones that have strong choruses that set them apart. The almost-anthem-esque “New Beginnings” and the upbeat, funky “Ball and Chain” are both examples of this. However, listeners can get lost in-between choruses on Asbestos Honey due to verses that can sometimes run together.
James just recently added a backing band called True Story with Adam Hewett on lead guitar and Sean Wilson on drums. Check out his schedule for upcoming shows around Oklahoma on his myspace.
Band Name: Josh James
Album Name: Painted in a Corner
Best Element: Songwriting Growth
Genre: Acoustic Singer/songwriter
Label Name: N/a
Band E-mail: myspace.com/joshjamesgtr
Having reviewed James’ acoustic-only debut Primitive Sketches, I was especially interested in seeing how his songwriting would grow and change with a full band backing him. While the added instruments provide some good changes, they also provides back alleys to travel that ultimately reach dead-ends and stop James from claiming a sound specifically his own.
That really is my biggest complaint here: James still sounds like he’s dabbling in a lot of different things rather than investing himself in one solid sound that he can hang his hat on. From the funk-lite of “Like a Bird” to the John Mayer-esque “Through to Me” to the serious “Don’t Remember” to the poignant “Home,” James is all over the map with Painted in a Corner. He and Aaron Sprinkle have something in common- they both take incorrect self-deprecating shots with their album titles.
The good thing is that there is improvement here. The vocals are slowly losing their annoying breathiness, especially on tracks like the rocking “Stuck in a Rut” and “Goodbye.” Unfortunately, we still have the heavy breathing of “Cold Cruel World” and “Like a Bird” to deal with.
I can forgive “Cold Cruel World,” because it holds the single best hook that James has ever written. That’s proof that the melodic ability of James is growing. Each of these songs has a pronounced hook, and that’s a great thing to have.
James’ best songs here are his slow ballads “Home” and “Comfort Coat.” It sounds as if he poured extra care and attention into them, as “Home” has a fantastic string accompaniment and “Comfort Coat” has a great horn line. This gives both these tunes double the amount of interesting melodies that the rest of the songs have.
There is a lot of growth and improvement on Painted in a Corner, but seeing as it is actually a first attempt at a full band setting, it’s pretty much a debut album. I look forward to seeing what James will do in the future as he grows in the understanding of the full band. The melodic gift he has will do very well if he can put it in the right setting.
Band: Josh James
Album: Primitive Sketches EP
Best element: The songs are all great individually.
Band E-mail: N/a
The acoustic songwriter world is full of variation. If you’ve got a guitar, and a voice, you can have a crack at it- producing everything from Ani Difranco’s empowered-girl folk to Dashboard Confessional’s emotive pop to Damien Jurado’s fractured Americana. Unfortunately, there’s a genre that most people armed with only an acoustic guitar fall into- the coffeeshop artist.
Some people do it excellently, some don’t do it well at all, but all do it with heart- busting out songs that run the gamut from folk to ballad to pop, then smashing them all together in one set, or one album. Josh James is a definite coffeeshop artist.
The biggest problem with coffeeshop artists is that they never carve out a definite niche. James falls victim to this in his EP Primitive Sketches. While all four songs are enjoyable, with “Comfort Coat” being especially well-done, the EP is a dart-board of styles. “Comfort Coat” is a neat piece of finger-picked mature pop in the vein of Gary Jules, with a consistently interesting guitar line and a well-done vocal line, but it’s backed up with “Feet on the Ground”, which is a neo-soul track. “Stay the Same” is a confrontational track in the vein of Elliot Smith, and “Nothing to Lose” is gravel-throated somber dirge. He does some genres better than others, and accomplishes absolutely no flow.
James’ high-ranged voice is great on songs like “Comfort Coat”, where he stays in his range and works the tone of his voice into the guitar sound- it’s unfortunately not so good on songs like “Feet on the Ground” and “Stay the Same”, where some unnecessary stretches are taken, whether they be too high or too low.
Overall, the tracks are enjoyable individually, but with the rapid change of styles and moods, it’s a challenge to enjoy every song when a thorough play of the album is heard. There is a lot of promise in the voice and guitar skill of Josh James, but he needs to exploit it by carving a niche for himself in one of these genres and running with it.