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: keith-james.com

‘The Mask’ – live on the radio:

Keith James releases new solo album

Keith James

Keith James has become one of the most active and inventive concert artists currently performing in the UK.

A very accomplished sound man with a BBC Maida Vale background, he worked for more than a decade as a record producer (1991 – 2004), working on albums with many of this country’s profoundly talented musicians and writers.

Realising his definite preference for live performance and following a detailed study, 2001 witnessed Keith begin a UK wide tour of concerts based entirely on his love of the songwriter, Nick Drake. As Nick’s music had never been heard live by today’s music audience (he died in 1974) these concerts soon became a huge success; over the course of 15 years, Keith has played over 2000 of these shows in the UK, Ireland, Holland, Spain, Italy and France, all of Nick’s Colleges and almost every British acoustic music festival including Glastonbury.

On from this, Keith has performed many different concerts over the past 10 years. Each one centres on studies and transcriptions of revered poets and writers and includes a significant amount of biographical material. The most notable of these are two CD Albums and two hugely successful tours featuring the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca set to music – The Gypsy Ballads 1928 and Poet in New York 1930. Other important projects are a CD album and concert tour featuring a collection of poetry by Dylan Thomas and an ongoing busy schedule of bio-doc concerts spanning over 6 years performing interpretive versions of songs by Leonard Cohen.

Keith is fiercely independent and therefore his career has for many years, existed in a parallel universe, almost under wraps, esoteric and secretive. He has enjoyed very little radio exposure, he doesn’t fit easily into any music category, he has never signed a recording or publishing deal. Despite this, he has released 13 CD Albums, all self-produced and self-published. The most recent from 2015 is entitled Always, a collection of his own poetry set to music along with one by Pablo Neruda from the 1930s.

He is about to release a brand new album, Tenderness Claws, all settings of poetry to music including work by Jack Kerouac, Pete Brown (1960s British beat poet) William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Federico Garcia Lorca and some of Keith’s own. This time, and rather unplanned, he has teamed up with the amazing producer / sound artist, Branwen Munn.

Keith lives in a writing retreat, way up in the hills of Powys, Wales and some months of each year in Andalucía. Since the mid ‘70s, his third home has been the Island of Naxos, Greece. He currently performs around 100 concerts per annum in Theatres, Arts Centres and other inspiring boutique spaces such as Galleries and Arts Cafes. He is currently compiling a volume of his own poetry to be published in 2017 along with some sporadic work on a rather surreal and somewhat comedic novel.

Artist’s website: http://www.keith-james.com/

Not from the new album but we’re not counting. ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ from the Songs Of Leonard Cohen tour: