James Isaak,
James Isaak
(Jimsfault, 2005)

James Isaak's self-titled CD was released in 2005. James, a singer-songwriter who creates folk music with his guitar and harmonica, wrote 10 tracks and added a rendition of "Amazing Grace" to create an album running just over 41 minutes. He recorded this CD in Los Angeles.

"The Ballad of Byron Lee" is the only track that grabbed me right away. The simple guitar melody accompanied by the melancholic harmonica makes for a sad tune. Byron Lee is a young soul lost in Los Angeles, "the city under siege." My initial thought was the music would fit more with a scenario based on the Civil War South. However, by the end of this track, I found myself hitting the rewind button to give the piece another listen and can see it fitting current times as well. Within short order, this was the track that got me to give the CD as a whole a second chance.

In contrast to "Byron Lee," James' version of "Amazing Grace" almost caused me not to listen to the CD again. "Amazing Grace" is one of those old songs that is either performed really well or very poorly. There is no middle ground. James' vocals on this track make me cringe. As this is the last song on the CD, I was already used to the occasional cracking in his singing. Some artists use this vocal technique to enhance their songs; in James' case, it comes across as amateurish. Perhaps I'm extra harsh on this track because I have heard so many artists perform this piece that I can more readily hear the flaws in James' voice. Maybe he should have stuck to his original material.

James thinks he is a little clever with his lyrics on songs like "Do It All Again," singing, "I was losing my religion when a priest came to my side. / He told me all about Jesus Christ and why he had to die. / But something sounded fishy with the story that he told. / It seems to me that he was killed just to keep the status quo. / And I said so to the priest and he cried 'Blasphemy!' and 'Sin!' / And I never thought that I would have to do it all again." In each verse the singer zings the person he interacts with. It comes across more as trite than clever.

Overall, I was honestly not impressed with this self-titled CD on first listen. James' musical style and vocals sound a lot like Shawn Mullins, but at a much less polished level. I have listened to the CD at least half a dozen times, and except for the one remake, I find it at least palatable now. I enjoy his guitar playing and harmonica much more than his singing or lyrics. I imagine that if I heard James in a coffee shop, I would think "Not bad! Not bad!" I guess I just expect a little more out of canned music.

by Wil Owen
20 January 2007

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