Some real folk blues here. Languid and ethereal, James’ high-pitched voice brings a powerfully mournful feel to the sparse arrangements (James accompanies himself on either guitar or piano; only one track features a sideman, Russ Savakus on bass). It’s the perfect record for a Sunday morning spent reflecting on – and probably regretting – those things you did the night before.
If this record feels like a live performance, that’s because it was more or less recorded like one. Many of the songs start out fragile but then build slowly, sometimes coming to a head with a crashing crescendo – but sometimes they don’t, and the tension just percolates a few minutes longer. The male-female vocal harmonies and the violin’s legato phrasing infuses the whole record with an inescapable feeling of loss. Deserves to be better known.
Released in 1984, this album would have been a lot better if it had been recorded four or five years earlier. Dreadful ’80s production techniques wash out most of the impact of a pretty solid, if not spectacular, collection of songs. It’s not just the synthesizers, though: it’s the backup singers, constantly inserting themselves where they don’t belong, who are the problem more than anything else. A more austere guitar / bass / drums / vocals approach would have done much to bring out the life of songs like “I Love You, Suzanne,” “My Friend George”—which still manages to bop along contentedly and stick in your head for a little while after the record’s over—or “Down at the Arcade,” a fun little closer. File this under “missed opportunities.”
Clocking in at slightly over half an hour, this album is about the same length as the theoretical optimum for any visit to Detroit. But unlike its sprawling namesake, this record is tight, focused and organized, a high-energy blend of jazz and funk that, at times, feels like it could drift into prog-rock territory with no more provocation than a stiff breeze. The city of Detroit has seen (heard?) its share of musical tributes; “Yusef Lateef’s Detroit” has to rank among the best of them.
I wrote an Author POV column over at Shotgun Honey entitled “We are unreliable narrators of our own lives:”
Self-deception gets in our way, trips us up, makes us do bone-stupid things. We all suffer from it from time to time. Luckily, most of us recognize this and, at least sometimes, try to compensate the best we can.
But sometimes we don’t confront our self-deceptions until it’s too late. For me, that happened when I was coming out of graduate school with an eye on a tenure-track teaching gig. Turns out, the entire professional landscape for college professors—and especially the job market—had shifted in a major way while I was locked away inside the ivory tower, and I’d failed to notice it.
Wait, scratch that. I had noticed it. I just used my own powers of self-deception to convince myself it wouldn’t affect me. Spoiler alert: it did …
Self-deception is probably the primary theme of How I’m Spending My Afterlife, but it wasn’t until I had actually published the book that I fully understood how it had once also applied to my own life. Click on over to Shotgun Honey to read the whole thing.