It’s hard to encapsulate a long, varied and distinguished career in two CDs. After all, Keith James is not only an excellent musician and producer, poet and songwriter in his own right. He also has a remarkable ability to set the verse of other poets – represented here by settings of Lorca, Dylan Thomas, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neruda and Blake – while his sensitive interpretations of songs by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen and others attract enthusiastic concert audiences. The 33 songs here include most of the tracks from his recent Tenderness Claws CD and several from the previous album Always. Other tracks make up a good introduction to his earlier CDs, however.
‘White Room’ is a reinterpretation of the Cream song, with Pete Brown’s lyric benefiting from more space and varied pace than the Wheels Of Fire version.
‘Anthem’ is the Leonard Cohen song. While Keith’s voice doesn’t have the gravitas of the growl-y bass-baritone voicings of Cohen’s later performances – in fact, he generally sounds more confident in his higher register – the performance is true to the song.
‘Daydreams For Ginsberg’ is an accomplished setting of Jack Kerouac’s poem.
‘The Unfaithful Wife’ is a setting of Federico Garcia Lorca’s ‘La Casada Infiel’: it’s a great example of Keith’s skill at adapting and setting verse.
‘Semana Santa’ (Holy Week) is one of Keith’s own songs. A lovely combination of lyric and melody.
‘Always’ is a setting of Pablo Neruda’s ‘Siempre’, with Spanish-accented guitar supporting a lyric about love that transcends jealousy.
‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ is another of Keith’s own songs with an arrangement with echoes of Jobim.
‘Decorated Cardboard Human Shapes’ sets one of Keith’s own poems. Driving percussion underline a complex soundscape. Highly though I rate his settings, I’m also impressed at how well his own lyrics stand in the company of those other poets.
The blues-jazzy ‘Scatterland’ and the poppier ‘Brand New Jeans’ are Keith’s own songs, while the flamenco-ish ‘Andalucia’ is based on a poem by Lorca. In ‘Floating Bridges’ Keith weaves another Lorca verse into a setting that makes the poem sound as if it was made to be sung.
‘New Face’, ‘Pantomime Horses’ and ‘The Water And The Rain’ are all songs by Keith, taken from his Always CD, which largely features songs derived from his own poetry. The last track on the first CD, ‘A Few Small Grains’, is another song of Keith’s, one of several songs here from his CD of the same name.
The first track on the second CD, ‘Fruit Tree’, is a song by the (still) much-missed Nick Drake. Keith’s vocals are particularly effective on this track. I really must try to get to one of Keith’s interpretive concerts.
‘The Mask’ and ‘Tyger Tyger’ are both featured on Tenderness Claws. ‘Tyger Tyger’ is an effective and appropriate setting of William Blake’s poem, but ‘The Mask’, based on Lorca’s Danza De La Muerte (Dance of Death), is just stunning.
‘Diamond’ is a setting of Lorca’s El Diamante: like many of the settings here, it comes from Keith’s album with Rick Foot Lorca.
‘Blue Angel’ is an atmospheric setting of a poem by Allen Ginsberg.
‘Glory Box’ is a very different, more straightforward version of the Portishead song, while ‘Take This Waltz’ revisits Leonard Cohen’s take on Lorca’s ‘Little Viennese Waltz’. (One way or another, there’s a lot of Lorca on this album, but there are a lot of people out here who will be more than happy about that.)
‘There Must Be A God’ is another song of Keith’s with a relatively pop-y arrangement. Like Nick Drake’s ‘Three Hours’ (which proves again how effective an interpreter of Nick’s songs Keith is) it was previously released on the Outsides album.
‘A Process In The Weather Of The Heart’ is an effective setting of the Dylan Thomas poem. ‘The Queen And The Soldier’ revisits a story song from Suzanne Vega’s debut album.
Two more of Keith’s songs, the ‘Lizard On The Wall’ and ‘Every Bond’, are followed by a chilling setting of Lorca’s surreal, disturbing ‘Sleepless City’.
Two more of Keith’s songs – ‘Run Before You Walk’ and ‘Only Occasionally’ – and finally back to a Lorca setting for ‘Nocturne’.
If you’re among the ever-growing circle of Keith’s admirers – especially if you’re acquainted with his most recent CDs – you’ll know what to expect: fine musicianship and lyrical intensity, leavened here with the occasionally more mainstream sounds of his earlier songs and versions of classic songs by other writers. If you’re not familiar with his work, this is a first class introduction to it. I look forward to hearing more about his current projects.
Artist’s website: www.keith-james.com/
‘Anthem’ – official video:
What we’ve said about Keith James: