Hilary James,
You Don't Know
(Acoustics, 2015)

Hilary James is an established British folk and classical singer, with a string of albums out, both solo and with her musical partner, guitarist Simon Mayer. Not just your everyday folkie, however, James is equally comfortable with classical music and the Great American Songbook.

Whereas generally her albums tend to focus on a single genre (with the exception of the fine The Two Sisters, recorded with her sister, Janet Giraldo, and reviewed on this site on 15 February 2014) You Don't Know paints with a bigger palette, taking on folk and classic American songs. Among the writers covered are Patrick Sky, the Reverend Gary Davis, Utah Phillips, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, George and Ira Gershwin, and Billy Rose.

Now, we know the British love their eccentrics, and just from the packaging, we get the feeling we're fixing to land at the Crazytown airport -- the cover photo belongs on a classical album; it shows Hilary James, chin resting on her right index finger, smiling inscrutably while her left arm cradles her mandolin bass, an instrument that looks like the Guinness Book record holder for the world's most unwieldy mandolin since it's roughly the size of a Honda CVC.

The first few notes of the record contribute to the feeling of eccentricity. James is a classically trained soprano; as far as folk music goes, her voice is much closer to Shirley Collins than Sandy Denny. It's a wonderful voice, flexible, strong and expressive, but when you read that this voice is going to take on Reverend Gary Davis's "Say No to the Devil" and "Deep River Blues," you've got to wonder what you're in for.

Turns out you're in for a freakin' treat. Hilary James is fully aware of how unusual it is for a voice like hers to approach this sort of material, and she does it beautifully, taking advantage of the dichotomy between her voice and the material to make it warm, humorous and great fun.

You Don't Know is an album I approached hesitantly and wound up loving.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

28 May 2016

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