The forthcoming CD from Keith James, Message From The Gods, is released on Monday June 3rd, and it’s a worthy successor to the albums of Keith’s that I’ve previously reviewed on this site. Which is to say that it’s very good indeed. Keith is a fine poet and songwriter in his own right, as well as a highly-rated interpreter of songs by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen et al. But he has also established an enviable track record in setting the poetry of other writers to music. This album continues to demonstrate his pre-eminence in that particular field, with ten settings of verse by Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda, Frida Kahlo, Kahlil Gibran, Kate Tempest, W H Auden, Federico Garcia Lorca and Leonard Cohen. And here’s the track listing.
- ‘Tiresias’ is the first of two settings of verse by Kate Tempest. It’s rather a good example of Keith’s ability to make an effective song out of an irregularly-structured, rhyme-free poem. Some very nice slide guitar by Phillip Henry in this one, too.
- ‘You Are The One’ sets a poem by Frida Kahlo, better known as an artist. In fact, this poem to Diego Rivera makes for a very attractive love song.
- ‘All My News’ is a setting of a poem from Leonard Cohen’s collection Book Of Longing. The harmonies here and in track two are, appropriately enough, somewhat reminiscent of Cohen’s incorporation of female backing singers on his last tours. Indeed, if he’d set this poem to music, I suspect that his version would not have been unlike Keith’s.
- ‘Quartet’ is based on lines from Khalil Gibran’s collection of poetic essays The Prophet. Keith’s setting and arrangement has echoes of Western Asia that seem to recall Gibran’s Lebanese ancestry and awareness of a range of religious cultures.
- If the title of ‘Caged Bird’ reminds you of Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, you’re in the right ball park, though Angelou’s book title was actually taken from Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem Sympathy. Angelou’s poem is clearly influenced by Dunbar’s, but is none the worse for that.
- ‘The things I know’ is another setting of a poem by Kate Tempest. The poem reads almost like a string of epigraphs – “Fame is the worst thing that could happen, to your reputation / If some people don’t hate your work, you’re not doing it right” – yet Keith’s reconstruction gives it added lyrical and musical coherence.
- ‘If You Forget Me’ is a setting of verse by Pablo Neruda. Was Neruda writing to his wife, his lover, or to Chile while he was in exile? I don’t know, but the song works very, very well.
- ‘Alone’ sets another Maya Angelou poem set to a blues-y tune with an adventurous arrangement.
- ‘Weeping guitar’ is vintage Keith James, setting a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca. No-one does this kind of setting better than Keith.
- H. Auden is probably best known popularly for Funeral Blues (“Stop all the clocks…“) since it was read in Four Weddings And A Funeral, though his technical range was far wider. His poem ‘But I can’t’, in this setting, sounds absolutely made for music.
Once again, Keith’s own musical expertise and sensitive vocals are supported by a fine set of musicians, and particular credit is due to the vocal support of Antonia Salter and the mixing and mastering skills of Branwen Munn. This is class material performed in an exemplary fashion. Highly recommended.
Artist’s website: http://www.keith-james.com/
‘All My News’: