Hot on the Box: Jose James, Jacob Golden, The Felice Brothers, Hayes Carll

It’s inevitable that there is always going to be too much music for me to cover and too little time in which to cover it, but, in true Lewis Black fashion, I am determined not to let these records slip through the cracks. One of these albums is really good, one of them is downright great, and two of them are a little hit and miss, but all four of them are, at the very least, deserving of consideration.

Jose James– The Dreamer
James is a golden-voiced jazz crooner who mixes lounge standards with spirited originals, but Harry Connick he ain’t. In spirit, he’s closer to Van Morrison in his prime, soulfully scatting into the mystic on this sensual, spiritual set that’s deliriously wild, improvisational, and about as far from mainstream as jazz gets. But that doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible; on the contrary, James and his astounding backing band are deeply rooted in a tradition of intimate, slightly spooky late-night vamps that blur the lines between jazz, soul, gospel, and blues. Seven of these songs are originals and three are covers, but all of them are thrilling, chilling, and utterly human. (Here’s an excellent primer on the album from Chris May.)

Jacob Golden– Revenge Songs
“I deserved to have my ass kicked last night,” sings Jacob Golden on his debut album, Revenge Songs, and, on more than one occasion, I wouldn’t mind being the guy to do it. But more often than not, I’m more inclined to give the guy a pat on the back and offer to buy him a beer. Golden’s album is a divorce album– in the grand tradition of Blood on the Tracks and Sea Change— and it’s got some of the most evocative imagery and lyrical storytelling of any such album in years. The music is equally haunting; Golden played and recorded the whole thing himself, mixing indie rock conventions with Beach Boys production flourishes and angelic vocal harmonies. Alas, for every vocal that recalls Simon and Garfunkel, there are a couple more that sound more akin to Bright Eyes or Dashboard Confessional, with Golden oversinging in a whiny tenor that robs his songwriting of its pathos and accessibility. It’s hard not to appreciate Golden’s considerable talent, but listening to the album is by turns moving and simply annoying. (Andy Whitman loves this album; PopMatters is not nearly so generous.)

The Felice Brothers– The Felice Brothers
Their spooky, woozy Americana sounds like it could have been made during the Great Depression, their lead singer sounds for all the world like a young Bob Dylan, and their debut album is completely out of time– a bizarre mixture of whiskey-sour balladry with alcohol-soaked barroom brawlers, vintage country- and folk-snapshots with subversive absurdism, heartwrenching real-life storytelling with a sinister sense of humor. Their songs all inhabit the same basic emotional terrain, and the oppressively long album feels like it’s five or six tracks too long, but there’s no denying that the Felice Brothers are simply unlike any other band making music right now. (Here’s AMG’s Andrew Leahey with a fine review of the album.)

Hayes Carll– Trouble in Mind
Hayes Carll writes folk-rock songs, but he sings them in such an exaggerated Southern drawl; so clearly idolized Texas singer/songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark; and has producer Brad Jones dress his songs with such generous helpings of steel guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, that Trouble in Mind sounds more or less like a traditional country album, in spirit anyway. Hayes proves himself to be a man of impeccable taste with his cover of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Want to Grow Up,” and even if a few songs dip too much into country cliches– like the autobiographical, life-on-the-road vignette “I Got a Gig”– most of these songs are packed with humor and heart, making this a slightly uneven but still very delightful set that gets better the more time you spend with it. (Hal Horowitz digs it, too.)

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