Music News & Reviews

Rockin’ with reverb, Jim James covers Elvis, Dylan, Sonny & Cher

Jim James
Jim James Photo provided

It’s a safe bet Jim James’ new all-covers album “Tribute to 2” was intended as little more than an interlude before his next psychedelic pop solo excursion or whatever electric adventure that awaits his long-running Louisville band My Morning Jacket.

But when you sit back and let this little delicacy of a record set in on its own, you get a better sense of the kind of musical journeyman James really is.

A sequel to 2009’s “Tribute to,” a six-song EP disc devoted exclusively to stark covers of George Harrison songs, this new 11-tune collection encompasses a roughly 50 year pop time span. The repertoire runs from a pair of 1940s rag-flavored pieces popularized by Ray Noble and Al Bowlly to the title tune from jazz empress Abbey Lincoln’s “The World is Falling Down” album.

Those, oddly enough, are the obscurities. In between are relics popularized by Elvis Presley, Sonny & Cher, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and, curiously, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Outside of the album opening take on Brian Wilson’s identity crisis classic “I Just Wasn’t Made for the These Times,” where a trippy, one-man-band arrangement gives the tune an unexpectedly dour feel, “Tribute to 2” makes minimal fuss in terms of accompaniment.

Though not as bare bones in design as the first “Tribute” disc, the performances here are kept pretty simple and spacious. The 1965 Sonny & Cher hit “Baby Don’t Go” dances lightly to a child-like piano backdrop while “Funny How Times Slips Away,” which has been interpreted by a glossary of pop, country and soul torchbearers since Nelson wrote it in 1961, has only a feathery acoustic guitar line for support. Even the few instances where James calls in reinforcements, as in the addition of MMJ guitarist Carl Broemel’s pedal steel colors for the hazy country soundscape of Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” the resulting music sounds open and loose.

What fills in the cracks? Why, James’ voice, of course — make that his reverb-drenched voice. By now, James’ singing and reverb are like breadsticks and garlic butter. You almost don’t know how to act when one isn’t drenched in the complimentary taste of the other. Maybe that’s why the cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s signature tune “Lucky Man” sounds so offsetting at first, as James sings the verses unadorned. But then we hear the cavernous, echoing chorus where a multi-tracked vocal line creates an otherworldly harmony.

But it’s on “The World is Falling Down” that everywhere comes together — a lighter dose of reverb, sparse guitar accompaniment and a vocal lead that professes faith in a troubled age (“the time is late, the fruit is bad”).

The music may reflect the vision of a schooled stylistic voyager, but the singing hits you like the cry of a frightened child.

Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com

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