Concept album about a breakup: what springs to mind? Cliche after cliche from some self-absorbed singer-songwriter? Cheesy, weepy lyrics and wimpy acoustic guitars? Something you’d most likely click off in a nanosecond? In that case, it might be dangerous to let you know that Susan James‘ new album Driving Toward the Sun is a concept album about a nasty breakup. Then again, an element of danger, emotional or otherwise, is a frequent presence in James’ music. If depth and intensity and a lush mix of both oldschool and alt-country and elegant chamber pop are your thing, there’s plenty of all that here. The whole album is streaming at James’ Bandcamp page.
The title pretty much says it all: it cuts any way you might imagine, and it gives you a clear indication of how smartly James writes and sings. Her imagery is plainspoken but potent, her clear, uncluttered, direct voice unselfconsciously affecting. James hails from Los Angeles, and there are a ton of musicians backing her. Notable among them are brilliant, ubiquitous pedal steel player Eric Heywood, purist drummer and Amy Allison collaborator Don Heffington and guitarist Neal Casal, whose terse, bitingly incisive leads cut through the lush bed of acoustic rhythm and soaring steel lines, usually over a steady, resolute backbeat. James’ songs evoke both the pensive Americana purism of Tift Merrritt as well as the clarity and edgy, confrontational directness of Penelope Houston. Tom Petty producer Ryan Ulyate deserves a shout-out as well for fleshing out these songs with a rich mix of textures without falling back on any easy 70s pop or 21st century corporate cliches: it sounds like the record he always wanted to make if left to his own devices.
The pensive title track has a Merritt-like determination in the face of adversity: the way Heywood’s floating steel contrasts with Jason Chesney’s anxious bass solo as it kicks off the final chorus is a characteristically smart, subtle touch. Wandering, a brisk, bluegrass-tinged shuffle is more optimistic: James’ protagonist has a “compass for a heart and a pickaxe mind” and isn’t about to let anybody get in the way.
Aqua Dulce Tears is sort of a schlock-free take on what Linda Ronstadt was doing in the 70s, Casal’s terse, echoey leads foreshadowing James’ chronicle of disappointment and dissolution. Just from the title, you know where U-Haul in the Driveway is going, but it’s bittersweet rather than maudlin, gorgeously flavored with Heywood’s low, moody swells, mandolin and a clave backbeat.
Despite all the pain, all the miscommunication, James is not ready to pack it in: “Any fool can see, I’ll be here come next anniversary,” she intones quietly on the next track: “I wanna scream and shout…quiet, the kids are in the room.” The slow, jangly ballad House of Love has both the tersely poetic sensibility and catchiness of Mary Lee Kortes‘ recent work, not to mention James’ nonchalantly chilling vocals. John McDuffie’s neat twelve-string guitar break toward the end sheds a little light that you just know is going to disappear, and it does.
The closest thing here to Penelepe Houston is Tule Fog, especially as the wickedly catchy, metaphorically-charged chorus kicks in: “When the the Tule fog comes rolling in, it’s a dangerous road my friend, when you can’t see around you…” The album ends with Mission Bells, up with a spash of cymbals, twin acoustic guitars, a wash of pedal steel in the background. It’s both a requiem for lost hopes as well as a tentative stab in an opposite direction: the Eagles only wish they had material like this to use to connect with a current-day audience. This is the rare album that will resonate with people who are looking for substance and depth as well as listeners who will never hear this as anything more than something pleasant in the background.