Friday, November 18, 2016

Jemima James - At Longview Farm

Jemima James - At Longview Farm 

The album At Longview Farm was initially recorded by Jemima James in 1979, but was shelved and never released until now. Team Love Records is the label for James’ son Willy Mason and, following the release of his own debut, Mason began pushing label co-owners Conor Oberst and Nate Krenkel to investigate the possibility of releasing his mother’s long neglected collection. The ten songs on At Longview Farm have a wide ranging command of American popular music styles without ever overexerting in an effort to impress its audience. This isn’t a confessional album in the mold of Joni Mitchell’s earlier work, but instead shows great imagination in the songwriting that’s much more the wont of a storyteller than heartbroken poet. James gathered some great musicians to accompany her on this album and there are a number of tracks that are clearly intended to push outside the relatively narrow confines of the folk rock genre towards something much more commercial that, nevertheless, doesn’t pander to her desired audience. 

Those more commercial efforts, like the opener “Sensible Shoes”, “Easy Come Easy Go”, and “One More Rodeo” more often than not embrace uptempo energy to help put over their pop-oriented sensibilities. They never entirely abandon the folk music influence woven through her songs and while they make their concessions to the marketplace, in the form of catchy choruses for example, they retain great substantive value both lyrically and musically. Melody is one of the hallmarks of the collection and there isn’t a single track that doesn’t benefit from James’ skills in this area, but the musicians playing with her on this album are equally responsible for realizing its musical potential. Manifesting the necessary restraint to play simply and coherently isn’t always easy for well-versed and proud musicians, but the best technicians in the genre are those who serve the song first and eschew any ego trips. The stamp of this can be discerned on every track.  

There’s a solid storytelling aspect that defines many of the songs. “Havana Cigar”, “Jackson County”, “Billy Baloo”, and the final song “Water at the Station” are all full of simple, conversational elegance and flashes of real poetry thanks to her frequently deft use of imagery to make a point. They likewise gain much from her phrasing – there’s never a single passage on the album as a whole where James fails to sound completely invested in the moment. Her ability to make full use of her talents as an interpreter of Americana musical traditions helps strengthen the album as well. Tracks like the aforementioned closer, “Book Me Back in Your Dreams”, and “Precious Love” are all solidly rootsy affairs that always sound credible rather than studied recreations of old-timey tunes.  

Sometimes better late than never really has meaning. Fans of folk rock and singer/songwriter works will keep coming back to this over and over and finding new riches in the impressive array of songs James brought to this release. At Longview Farm references the long tradition of American popular music without ever being beholden to it and makes a personal statement that’s revealing and highly entertaining.  

9 out of 10 stars.

Charles Hatton

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