Brendan James had been on my musical radar for a while as a literate, emotionally resonant singer-songwriter and pianist before relocating to my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina recently, but since then he has been on an impressive creative run. This is James’ second album release in 2013, and if you haven’t seen his TEDx Charleston talk from January, seek it out immediately. (I’ll even post it below this review, to make it easy for you)
James turns the expected piano man stereotypes on their heads with a style that’s as pop as Ben Folds but more insular and self-reflective on songs such as “The Skeptic”, which tackles objectivity and pessimism with the only thing that matters, love. James’ fast-talking lyricism piles imagery and emotion into every line while the band cranks up just enough to make it a rhythmically interesting track that’s not just built around a piano riff.
There is so much going on in James’ songs it takes multiple listens for it to sink in, rewarding persistence with substance and singular style. His meaty, melodic chording on the keyboard lifts “Ignorant Man” to hymn-like status, while his effortless falsetto imparts as much meaning as the lyrics to the right listener. This isn’t easy listening, no matter how mellow the piano/vocal setup is or how many strings and organ parts are layered on top, but it’s easy to listen to, over and over, because it is one of those albums that reveals more with each trip through it.
James has become known as a topical songwriter as well, with public stances on such issues as marriage equality and gun control; the latter pops up on “The New Plan,” a plaintive ode to our culture of violence that’s as powerful a song as it is an issue in public discussion:
“It’s a one and one is three argument in my country
but if our forefathers could grieve they would cry to see the fear we keep”