To misquote somewhat: Keith James’ catalogue is rather like a box of chocolates. He is famed for his interpretation of the songs of other artists, Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen notable amongst them; he is equally praised for settings and interpretations of poetry, in particular Federico Garcia Lorca, and then there is his own songwriting which is where Can You Imagine? comes in. Like many recent projects, the album came out of the lockdown months and Keith has collaborated with Scottish artist, Jenny Finch, by which I mean painter and ceramicist as well as writer. He’s invested in a home studio and once again worked with Branwen Munn to expand his musical visions.
The opening track, ‘Something I Thought I Understood’, is so powerful that I didn’t want to move on. It’s a song of reflection and regret and the final lines are the killers: “I should have written this years ago, I know I should”. It opens with Keith’s voice, slightly husky, imbued with all his musical influences. ‘Clean Lines’ and the title track take up the same themes but with ‘Never Enough’, the first collaboration with Finch, he begins to raise his spirits a little.
‘Chic A Boom’ is the reminiscences of an old musician. That is what Keith is, of course, but in the languid delivery are Cohen, Dylan and Tom Waits. It’s another cracking song. ‘Clarity Road’ was written by Finch alone and she has captured both the mood of the album and Keith’s style to perfection. ‘Human Kindness’ has an unexpected country feel with Keith getting a bit Johnny Cash. There is a heavy cynicism in the opening verses but he manages to turn his back on that.
Can You Imagine? closes with three more collaborations with Jenny Finch. ‘Zoom Girl’ has me a little baffled and I’d like to get back to you on it, if you don’t mind. ‘All Around’ is about ecological destruction. It’s another powerful song and wrapped up in it are some of the ideas found in ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ but in a very different context. ‘Life In Black And White’ seems to find the writers at a point of acceptance and understanding of all that has gone before but that raises questions.
Can You Imagine? is actually a double CD. The first disc has the fully orchestrated editions of the songs and the second contains acoustic versions but neither Keith nor I will call them demos. It is instructive to listen to what an effect Branwen has had on the songs and I suppose this will be how we’ll hear them live if lockdown doesn’t hit us again.
Artist’s website: http://www.keith-james.com/
‘Something I Thought I Understood’ – official video: