Joshua James plays a surrealistic 21st century take on Nashville gothic and folk noir. He likes minor keys and ominous nature imagery. The production on his new album, My Spirit Sister – not yet streaming at Bandcamp, but due there at the end of the month and serendipitously available on vinyl – manages to be sleek and digital without dulling the edge of James’ song cycle. There’s an understatedly symphonic sweep to what’s essentially a theme and variations. He’s got a gig tonight with his band at the Mercury at 8. If you didn’t already get your $15 advance ticket, it’ll cost you three bucks more, which is as pricy as that venue gets these days. But James is worth it.
The album’s indelibly catchy opening track is Broken Tongue. It’s like the shadow side of a 60s Simon and Garfunkel folk-rock hit, with shivery digital reverb effects on the many layers of guitars over a steady backbeat anchored by bassist Isaac Russell and drummer Timmy Walsh. In his flinty twang, the Nebraskan songwriter ponders alienation and the struggle to communicate through the debris of a lifetime worth of damage.
As the similarly brooding yet propulsive Coyote Calling moves along, the guitars of James and Evan Coulombe slash and stab through the digital haze: in a subtle way, it’s the album’s funniest song. It segues into Real Love, a creepy hitchhiking narrative which mirrors the opening track. Is the “mighty wind that’s gonna lift you up” a tornado, a fire-and-brimstone religious metaphor, or both?
The crushing, distorted electric guitars return in Golden Bird, a druggy, apocalyptic tale that unwinds amidst the contrast of high lonesome, reverbtoned guitar twang and a crushing, distorted chordal attack. James paints an understatedly cynical portrait of rural white ghetto nickel-and-diming: it’s like Tom Waits backed by Jessie Kilguss’ band.
In a swaying Wallflowers/Deer Tick rock vein, Pretty Feather is the first pop-oriented number here. Backbone Bend, which nicks the chord progression from a familiar Prince hit, strays further beyond Americana than any of the other tracks. Losin’ My Mind is a tasty reverb guitar-fueled update on vintage 60s acoustic Dylan. In Dark Cloud, James weaves a richly detailed story about a young couple hanging on by their fingernails: you can see the end coming a mile away, but it still packs an impact. The cycle winds up with the Springsteen-folk of Blackbird Sorrow, which is a decent song, although the ending is too pat: dark clouds don’t usually vanish from the sky as fast and inexplicably as they do here. It’ll be interesting to see where James goes after this.