James ?builds? impressive album

By By Elliott Bueler

By Elliott Bueler

Wrought with the familiar themes of love and religion that made his debut album a critical success, Joshua James’ follow-up, Build Me This, shows he’s more unrestrained than ever.

Although the native Nebraskan has long worked under a veritable shadow of comparisons to modern folk singers such as Ray LaMontagne and Conor Oberst, James has forged his own identity with each release. James’ raspy, almost whispery vocals and tales of introspective struggle are there, now complemented by expanded instrumentation. This is apparent early on the opener “Coal War,” a gospel-driven chain-gang tune featuring hand claps and minimal instrumentation, which eventually gives way to interjections of heavy drums and shouts from James before subsiding.

The maturity and self-assurance of Build Me This are made more compelling when contrasted with James’ debut, which, though successful, was his first foray into music and understandably more subdued. At 25 and with only six years of experience writing music, James is still a comparatively new artist, but one who’s proven growth doesn’t have to mean metamorphosis. Much of what made James one of Paste Magazine’s “Next 25 Artists You Need to Know” hasn’t been tampered with8212;only refined.

“We’ll all be damned when the sun don’t shine and your hateful words will come floating back to you,” sings James on the simplistic and gentle “Weeds.” Rolling guitar and light mandolin complement James’ vocals as he sings of the futility of hatred in words just slightly more complicated than the “I’m rubber and you’re glue” elementary school adage.

Such polarity8212;love and hate, black and white8212;is common in James’ writing, and might seem too exclusionary to have any breadth of appeal. However, it reminds us that we all face the same unavoidable end, and though it might seem a stark reality, there’s hope of making the most of it by reaping the good we sow.

Previously occupying a more conservative place along the folk-rock spectrum, moments from Build Me This8212;including the heavy guitar-driven “Black July” and “Magazine,” which feature spirited piano and organ undertones8212;are cause for a re-examination of James’ place along that spectrum. Others such as the down-home, almost Celtic “Annabelle” might have some listeners scratching their head but doing so right along with the beat. This album also finds James cutting loose vocally, belting out choruses and shouting declarations such as “I have hope for others, Father, but I, I have given up” in the album’s fitting finale, “Benediction.”

For all its expansion in sound and direction, the album’s brightest moments come when the instrumentation concedes to James’ vocals. What shouldn’t get lost amid the musical ambition of Build Me This are the unassuming gems such as “In the Middle” and “Pitchfork,” which affirm that James is intent on building on what he started with The Sun is Always Brighter and less interested in building something new.

James will play a free concert at Graywhale Music on Friday prior to a scheduled concert that night at The State Room in Salt Lake City.

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