KEITH JAMES – Word Paintings (Hurdy Gurdy)

Word PaintingsKeith James – poet, songwriter, singer, composer and arranger and a fine guitarist. It is perhaps unfair that these achievements have been somewhat overshadowed by his work as an interpreter of other writers – Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Federico Garcia Lorca pre-eminent among them. He’s very good at it, of course, and it has sustained him over a period of some five decades. More recently he has concentrated more on his own work again and always with flair and imagination. Word Paintings is a collection of songs written in conjunction with Jenny Finch and is released with a book of her paintings with lyrics and background to the songs. I am aware that the album has undergone several revisions since it was first mooted.

Keith’s musical influences thread their way through the record. Poet In New York gave birth to ‘Postcard From Havana’, the opening track. I have no doubt that we are back in that city night-scape full of plots and intrigue and the song has a bold, evocative arrangement. If you’re looking for pictures, this is a fifties film noir. On ‘Moment To Shine’ his voice is given just a touch of echo which complements another powerful arrangement, contrasting with the dreamy, tender ‘You Are The One’ which comes next.

‘Pram Wheels And Broken Lampshades’, is a perfect example of the innovation Keith has brought to this album. At first play I checked to make sure I was listening to the correct disc. It begins with a loping cowboy motif and builds into a fine arrangement. The refrain line “departures from the norm” could well be a mission statement for Word Paintings and it reinforces what Keith is doing musically. It’s also a knockout song. At this point we depart a little from the original concept. ‘Solid Air’ is John Martyn’s tribute to Nick Drake, an artist with whom Keith has had a long posthumous relationship. Without copying Martyn, he channels the style of the original and I suppose it qualifies as a word painting.

‘Life In A Western World 2024’ is an old song but Keith has never let go of it and it is still relevant, perhaps even more so. This version retains and even boosts the hand percussion of the previous incarnation and the piano is a slightly more dominant element of the arrangement. Another killer song. ‘Call My Name’ has a mystical quality and it is followed by a very fine arrangement of Nick Drake’s ‘Northern Sky’, which Keith released as a single last year. The first verse of ‘Winter In Poitiers’ is a true word painting filled with not quite random images before morphing into a very personal story. Keith has given this song a big, dramatic arrangement in keeping with the feeling it conjures up. ‘Currency Of Nations’ sits on a Cohen-ish guitar figure before an orchestral arrangement takes up and is about… the madness of the modern world, perhaps. ‘The Photograph’, bringing Word Paintings to its end, is also full of images, seemingly random flashes of memory frozen in time as the refrain has it. Keith applies it to three different photographs at three different times.

Word Paintings is lyrically and musically rich, perhaps more so than any of Keith’s earlier albums but that is a very subjective view. I must confess that he sent me an early demo and he has now omitted some songs which I really like. I’m sure that they will turn up in later incarnations and, for the moment, I’m glad to have heard them.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘Solid Air’ – officially live: