James F. Curley,
Tom's Cafe
(Sidewalking Crab, 2002)

On this CD, James F. Curley can't seem to decide what kind of a musician he is, or what his music wants to be, other than "Americana." Is it rock? Is it folk? Is it country?

He's certainly versatile, showing a mastery of several musical idioms. But Tom's Cafe appears to be a showcase or "best-of" package unfortunately lacking the requisite body of work to support it. The CD lacks a beginning and an ending, or indeed a story in between. Curley's accomplished singing and playing is squarely in the tradition of (among others) James Keelaghan, but he lacks the vision of that artist. Nor is he the next Jim Croce or John Prine.

The title song is based on a strong idea, but doesn't have the depth and substance to be the centerpiece of a whole record. It's about urban decay in blue-collar Philadelphia. Curley sings: "The day that Tom's Cafe closed, all the neighbors sighed." They sighed? Nobody shed a tear? The song is well crafted, but somehow fails to convince.

A number of songs miss the mark. On "The Hunt" he gets political and attempts a folk-rock song about the evils of cocaine use. The message here seems forced and obvious. Drug lords are an easy target.

Curley can get excessively earnest and sometimes suffers from lyrical awkwardness. The opening lines of "Western Avenue" (and of the CD), "You must have been a beautiful baby/to become such a lovely child/You must have been born of noble parents/to have so much natural style" have haunted my sleep, but for the wrong reasons. Here's another lyric: "The force of nature known as love/Should overpower all of the above/Should shelter one from rising tides/It only churns me up inside." Ouch!

In the novelty song "Flies" he does hit the right lyrical notes, showing a clever sense of humor and the ability to craft a song. Apparently, this song won a John Lennon songwriting contest. But good as it is, the song is out of context with the rest of the CD.

Too often, though, Curley relies on the lyrical and musical cliches of American singer-songwriterdom, failing to venture into new territory or carve out a distinctive niche for himself. It's OK to be versatile, but this album lacks a defining vision, or thematic worldview to hold it together.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 6 September 2003

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