KEITH JAMES – Tenderness Claws (Hurdy Gurdy HGA2926)

Tenderness ClawsOn his web site, Keith James describes his career as esoteric and secretive, but he has actually attracted a good deal of respect for his sensitive interpretations of the songs of Nick Drake, John Martyn and Leonard Cohen, and his musical settings of his own poetry and that of well-loved writers like Lorca and Dylan Thomas. His new CD, Tenderness Claws, is almost entirely focused on settings of poetry: it’s the first time I’ve actually heard his work, but it’s finely crafted and played, exquisitely produced (mostly by Branwen Munn) and engineered, and repays close attention.

There can be a degree of implicit tension between the intentions of the poet and the composer when a poem is set to music. Housman took exception to the omission by Vaughan Williams of two of the verses from Is My Team Ploughing? Vaughan Williams responded that ‘the composer has a perfect right artistically to set any portion of a poem he chooses provided he does not actually alter the sense.’ (And made it clear that there were lines in the missing verses that he felt were best forgotten.)

Phil Ochs, though probably mostly remembered nowadays as a ‘protest’ singer, also composed several excellent settings to poems by Poe, Noyes and others. In his liner notes to I Ain’t Marching Any More he offered – if my memory doesn’t fail me – a sort of apology to John Jerome Rooney for his substantial changes to The Men Behind The Guns. (We’ll never know what Rooney would have thought about it).

Keith James clearly believes it appropriate that what Ochs called ‘the discipline of music’ should sometimes modify and shed a different light on an existing poem as it develops into a song. And the success of the settings here entirely justifies that belief.

Here’s the track-by-track summary:

  1. ‘Tyger Tyger’ is Keith’s setting of William Blake’s poem. This is the oldest poem set here, and the form is unequivocally strophic, by contrast with the freeform nature of the work of the ‘beat’ poets also represented here. However, it could be said that Blake’s writing was often a long way ahead of its time, and the arrangement is unequivocally modern, and in no way clashes with the more recent verse here. I particularly like Sarah Vilensky’s vocal work here.
  2. Although the insert and booklet state ‘All music composed by Keith James’, ‘White Room’ is actually the melody that Jack Bruce put to Pete Brown’s words on Cream’s Wheels Of Fire Though I remember the original with nostalgia, Keith’s is really rather a good version, benefiting from significantly more light and shade. The arrangement accentuates the dislocated tone of the lyric better than the in-yer-face wah-wah of Cream’s version – perhaps we’re just too accustomed now to the sound of frequency filtering to remember its impact in the 1960s – and Keith’s understated vocal compares well to Bruce’s.
  3. ‘Andalucia’ is based on a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca with which I’m not familiar. It combines a rhythmic arrangement that recalls flamenco, though the percussion and some of the changes hint at Latin America. Keith’s vocal delivery, though, is all his own.
  4. ‘A Process In The Weather Of The Heart’ slightly rearranges the poem by Dylan Thomas, but still feels through-composed. I don’t know what Dylan would have thought, but it works for me.
  5. ‘Decorated Cardboard Human Shapes’ sets one of Keith’s own poems, combining a wide range of haunting aural effects with a compulsive percussion track.
  6. ‘Daydreams For Ginsberg’ is set to an abbreviated version of Jack Kerouac’s poem. It works very well.
  7. ‘The Mask’ is based on Lorca’s Danza De La Muerte (Dance of Death). This time the poem, though significantly shortened, is left in Spanish, apart from the couplet that begins and ends this setting. As with ‘Andalucia’, the guitar is steeped in flamenco feel, but Rick Foot’s bowed double bass adds quite a different dimension. Beautiful.
  8. ‘Blue Angel’ sets a poem by Allen Ginsberg to guitar arpeggios that give the setting a slightly folk-y feel.
  9. ‘Lizard On The Wall’ is a guitar-driven setting of Keith’s own slightly surreal words, punctuated by gentle flamenco-tinged clapping. I like it a lot.
  10. ‘A Third Place…’ sets another of Keith’s own poems, hinting at a tragic backstory. In some way I can’t quite define, it makes me think of Brel.

Keith’s voice has a fragility that might not be to everyone’s taste, but is entirely suited to the material here, and I can see (or hear) why it would be suited to the songs of Nick Drake, for instance. But then his settings here of his own poems make for compositions that stand very well on their own, even in the company of the other writers represented here. Highly recommended.

David Harley

Artist’s website:

‘The Mask’ – live on the radio: