James O'Malley,
I'm Ready
(Gable Wing, 2002)

James O'Malley is a boyish, 50-something songwriter in the midst of resuscitating a long dormant music career. Lucky for us. Once a member of the '70s folk-rock trio known as The Braid, O'Malley is a hugely talented lyricist and musician who writes with remarkable alacrity of life's foibles, triumphs and defeats without wallowing in self-pity. Neither does he bore us with cliches, overstatement or self aggrandizement. Instead, the 14 original tunes on I'm Ready, his self-produced debut album on Gable Wing Records, are all well-crafted, hook-laden gems that demonstrate a penchant for songwriting at once original and insightful. In the self-penned liner notes O'Malley confesses: "I look upon it as a letter, long since written, but never mailed," adding "my hope is that the message be received with the love that is was sent."

Judging from the burgeoning fan base he is building throughout Long Island where he now makes his home, O'Malley's message is getting across impressively. What puzzles me most is how an artist this talented is not already an established fixture on the national acoustic music scene or, at the very least, up and down the eastern seaboard. Perhaps this record will further O'Malley's revived career and his well-honed, refreshingly accessible songwriting can reach a much deserved, wider audience.

I'm Ready (an apt debut album title if ever I've heard one) begins with the laidback, bluesy "If I Ain't Got the Blues By Now" that features the remarkable harmonica work of Colin Huddleston. O'Malley's subtle, whispering tenor voice underscores the old-time, lullaby-like melody to this simple song, which is the perfect introduction to the quietly soothing vocals that are his signature. While his voice may be somewhat limited in its range, O'Malley does a great deal with it, particularly in the urgent and emotive manner in which he performs his songs, both on this recording and in his live shows. Feeling stressed out? Virtually every song on this record, including the more up-tempo ones such as "Patty Please" and "Wild, Wild Heart," is guaranteed to sooth, relax and transcend your state of mind to a more tranquil place.

I would venture to classify the record as "easy listening" folk but it would be a misnomer, for there is real eloquence here ably framed in simple, uncluttered arrangements. Not that O'Malley necessarily resists waxing wistful or the chance to convey a certain pathos. He reminds us all of the tragic debacle that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, in his tribute to heroes anthem, "There's No Place That I'd Rather Be," yet lifts our spirits later in the song by focusing on American determination, strength and sense of national unity:

"Give me one good hand for diggin' / and one good eye to see
Give me one good leg to stand on / then point the way for me
And don't tell me when my shift is over / I'll be workin' till the work is done
Standing shoulder to shoulder / with the hope of finding, just one."

A father of three grown children, O'Malley seems to be at his songwriting best when rummaging through his past. His lucid, if sometimes sentimental memories are deftly captured in loving tributes to his family, particularly when it comes to facing the inevitable "empty nest" point in life. "Letting Go" is a touching and heartbreaking autobiographical dirge to his young daughter that strikes a knowing chord with anyone who has had to bear the bittersweet pain of watching a child leave home for good. Still, O'Malley toughs it out and sadly laments:

"Letting go is what remains / of building blocks and growing pains
Of a little girl dancing in the rain / with mud on her new jeans
Is there more that I should know / of fallen leaves and melting snow?
How aging rivers surely flow / into new streams...."

Heart-wrenching stuff, to be sure. And there is more where that came from, especially the melancholy "The Gift Of Knowing" as well as "Don't Say a Thing Like That," each of which has O'Malley at his most vulnerable, confessional best. Yet unlike the myriad songs penned by so many overly indulgent folksingers, neither tune abandons the listener to quiet desperation but instead ends happily ever after, resolving in redemption, love and a better understanding of universal truths.

"Jimmy & John," perhaps one of the most heavily requested songs whenever O'Malley performs, tells a story of two young brothers who sneak out from their house one night only to lose their way as well as each other. O'Malley furnishes a surprise ending to the building narrative that never ceases to enchant and amuse. Fortunately, O'Malley is equally adept at writing wry, engaging songs that cleverly provide comic relief from his more dramatic compositions. Whether he is fondly recalling his youth in "My New Car" or taking inventory of his life's souvenirs in "My Junk Drawer," O'Malley offers up thoroughly entertaining tunes that one never grows tired of despite repeated listening.

Musically, I'm Ready is spare and unadulterated, featuring, for the most part, O'Malley with just his voice and vintage Martin guitar. While certain songs could have benefited from some additional harmonies and perhaps some percussion, what you hear is essentially what you get in one of the songwriter's performances, save for Huddleston's harmonica fills here and there and some nifty finger-style guitar work by local guitarist Larry Moser. O'Malley's guitar playing here is first rate, whether he's strumming away percussively on the rollicking "Mama Didn't Raise No Fool" or finger picking the haunting melody of "Always Loving You," perhaps the strongest ballad he has written to date.

The album closes with "Always Tomorrow," a wise and visionary lament that offers advice in overcoming whatever obstacles may litter our collective paths.

"I'm Ready" showcases a gifted songwriter poised at the threshold of a loftier position in the ranks of American singer/songwriters. With this long-awaited debut CD, James O'Malley serves notice that he is more than a little ready to break through to a wider, national audience. Recently he has opened for the likes of Lynn Miles, Cheryl Wheeler, Louise Taylor and Jack Williams, all of whom were duly impressed by his talents. It will be up to the rest of the world to catch up.

[ by Ralph DiGennaro ]
Rambles: 10 August 2002