IN THIS (PANDEMIC) TIME is a series of Kurated columns inspired by COVID-19. Keep your ears to the ground.
A YOUNG MAN SINGING BEYOND HIS YEARS
Hearing a newcomer like Early James makes you realize how rare and precious are the talents of an insightful wordsmith making music like we heard a few decades ago. James would find himself in good company with artists like Lucinda Williams, Kris Kristoffersen, Bonnie Raitt or Steve Earle to name a handful.
The songs on his first collection, Singing for My Supper, are those of a young man –he’s 26– with understanding beyond his years. The compositions vary in style, but the feel skews toward country-folk with themes to match –relationships, depression and addiction.
Spare acoustic arrangements sit next to neo-psychedelic guitar-driven rock, meandering pedal steel and songs with lush, orchestral flourishes. What anchors the mix is James’ impassioned and plain spoken delivery in a sandpaper edged-voice.
A brief survey of Early James’ previous work shows him performing solo or with standup bass accompaniment. This is his first effort with a full band. Much of the credit for this accomplished and strong debut release goes to producer, arranger and occasional co-writer Dan Auerbach.
26 April 2020
On his debut album the 26-year-old sings about disillusion in styles that glance back to the 1970s and before
Early James — the Alabama-born singer and songwriter Frederick James Mullis Jr. — just sidles his way into the first song on “Singing for My Supper,” his debut album. “Blue Pill Blues” has an instrumental intro that lasts more than a minute, with its riffs bubbling up out of what might be a late-1960s Jefferson Airplane jam, before James starts singing. His first lyrics are, “What’s roiling and churning in my poor mind.”
He maintains that uneasy, oblique approach throughout the album, presenting himself as both a throwback and a character living in a fraught, uncertain present. Early James is 26, but his music has much older underpinnings, glancing back to the 1970s, the 1960s and before. (In the album’s last song, “Dishes in the Dark,” he does some ragtimey acoustic-guitar picking.) He’s decidedly self-conscious about looking back, but also unapologetic; “Lord knows, I love to borrow/Never stolen, I’ll argue that,” he sings in “Way of the Dinosaur,” which has a chorus that concludes, “Originality up left, and went the way of the dinosaur.”
Early James is on the roster of Easy Eye Sound, the studio and label of Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys, who produces albums for both grizzled blues and country survivors and younger musicians, like Yola, who savor retro ways of recording: hand-played and live-sounding, with a professional polish that relies far more on virtuosity than on studio tweaking.
The songs on “Singing for My Supper” have a foundation of vintage instruments — guitars swaying in reverb and tremolo, the steamy tones of a Hammond B3 organ, the self-contained cool of a Wurlitzer electric piano — and arrangements that hark back to the Nashville and California of yesteryear. The drums are steady and understated; steel guitar hovers in the background; mandolin or dobro arrive for rural touches, string sections for reassurance.
But Early James chafes against any comforts the music might provide. His voice sounds tattered and nervous, with a grainy quaver, as if he’s looking over his shoulder half the time. His melodies hesitate and evade the beat; his lyrics move via moody free association, not the direct narratives of most Americana.
He often sings about how things go wrong: relationships (“Stockholm Syndrome”), youthful hopes (“High Horse”), a family’s luck (“Easter Egg”). In “Gone as a Ghost,” a fatalistic country cha-cha, he sings, “It’s time that you get gone/Wasting your youth, till your name’s on a gravestone.” The album’s most openly dramatic song is “It Doesn’t Matter Now,” a film-noir crescendo with more than a hint of Tom Waits; the singer wakes up after a tryst realizing, “You need me like you need another blackout/And I need you like I need another thing to lie about/It’s all my fault somehow.”
Disillusion fills the songs, without the luxury of nostalgia. In “Clockwork Town,” a twangy bolero, the singer revisits a place he used to live, only to reflect, “It sure don’t feel like home/Then again, what really does?” Early James (and Auerbach’s gang of studio musicians) can look back on a cozy musical past, but it doesn’t promise them any clear way forward.
Blue Pill Blues [Verse 1] What's rolling and churning in my poor mind Supposed to hold fast Supposed to keep me feeling fine But it's cookin' my goose with a cast-iron noose Can't walk a straight line, I'm runnin' on Strychnine [Chorus] Just can't lose these blue pill blues Tick tock, tick tock There goes my fuse [Verse 2] Nothing as dull as what's in my skull What I'm cutting' back is only quicker to attack Chip on my shoulder, chip off the ole block Pullin' all the strings, I'm just a puppet sock [Chorus] Just can't lose these blue pill blues Tick tock, tick tock There goes my fuse Just can't lose these blue pill blues Tick tock, tick tock There goes my fuse It Doesn’t Matter Now Oh we've done it now, what a tangled web we wove Through the night Wool all in her eyes Shepards got a big surprise come daylight And all the barnyard bigotry, all except you and me, for a while In spite of our history, got lost in the periphery And I fell for your desperate smile [Chorus] But you need me like you need another blackout I need you like I need one more thing to lie about It's all my fault somehow Guess it doesn't matter now [Verse 2] You're above this town, if you'd only don the crown They put you up on a Southside mural Hope you gain the will All it took was a handful of pills And a postponed funeral Don't remember all the things I said Just the hospital bed And the weight of it all I felt all the blame Mostly I felt ashamed So sorry I didn't call [Chorus] But you need me like you need another blackout I need you like I need one more thing to lie about It's all my fault somehow Guess it doesn't matter now High Horse I kinda sorta wish that I could keep clean In the kinda sorta way that I used to be A child-like belief And time's been the thief all along It's the view from this high horse I’m on [Verse 1] A fever-dream it seems of just passing the time Too much nicotine, caffeine and wine My milk-mustache shaved Things I once craved, make me yawn It's the view from this high horse I’m on [Bridge] I can’t remember the last time that I climbed a tree Now when I’m high there ain’t much that I wanna see [Verse 2] All I remember is waking up under the sink Why can’t I go out at night And just have one little drink Or two, or three, or four [Chorus] I kinda sorta wish that I could keep clean In the kinda sorta way that I used to be A child-like belief And time's been the thief all along It's the view from this high horse I’m on --