California Is a State of Mind
SUSAN JAMES | Driving Toward the Sun (Megaforce/RED)
Not to contrive it too much, I
hope, but it did occur to me while listening to Susan James’ new album
Driving Toward the Sun that I was hearing probably a near perfect rendering of what
has been termed (a million times) that classic “California Sound.” And what might that
“classic” California Sound be? Well, there’re a lot of variations on it, a broad stretch of
pop and rock and new-/non-genre stylings from the
Beach Boys to the Doors to Linda
Ronstadt to Sly Stone to the Minutemen to Zappa, Beefheart,
and then NWA figures in there, too –– but let’s not get too far afield on all that. I’d like
chiefly to think that the entire span of above-mentioned artists of such different stripes all
contributed to the making of a California Sound by dint of something that concerns the
sun: its warmth, its shadings, its meanings and its might.
And here is another Californian to consider:
Susan James is an L.A.-born ‘n’ bred singer-songwriter-guitarist I’ve sort of monitored for
many years, since her early days doing solo albums that spanned a nicely skewed mixed-bag of
folkie-pop-rock, ethnological and gently experimental electronic music, which marked her as a quintessentially Californian artist: open-minded, not too bound up by the rules of musical
tradition or cultural archetype, and offering music and a persona that seemed to radiate a
sunlike hospitality amid its idiosyncracies. But Californian artists, musicians anyway, will tend to
zero in, eventually, on a particularly crafted approach in their music, and James is like this,
too, having evolved to a more centralized view of her self, apparently, and of her music, more
specifically as a kind of psychedelicized folk-country-pop hybrid, such as on her
Highways, Ghosts, Hearts & Homes album of last year. That record was a beautifully written (she knows about melody), performed (she’s a deftly inventive guitarist) and, notably, inventively arranged sojourn through the Americana dream, in simple but subtly complex tunes that, while keenly (lyrically uncliched) observing life, love, experience, the ways things are and the way they oughtta be, graced the above with such golden rays of acoustic guitar, lap steel, fiddle and gloriously bell-toned voice that it was like –– well, like feeling the sun on your face.
James’ new Driving Toward the Sun
album bathes in sunlight, and watches it fade away. It’s an album that will strike you
with its warmth, but a sort of earned warmth, since the words and music are probing
heartbreak, no way of getting around it, and that is a theme that wisps its way throughout
the set. Yet, better, it has even more to do with the expanding of horizons post-post heartbreak.
From the opening title track, you’re taken aback by the purity of this singer’s voice, so unadorned
and pure, and so compellingly blending hurt, anger, resilience and a kind of understanding.
James’ excellent mastery of tone and uncluttered vocal styling give the opening title song an
inviting feel, and the inkling that the ensuing music will be the kind of pop one can really sink
one’s teeth into, which it is. Tracks such as “Wandering,” “Agua Dulce Tear,” “U-Haul in the Driveway” and “Anniversary” all render the heartbreak in superbly melodicized and even painterly instrumental settings (which feature heaping helpings of fine lap steel work by James and others).
James’ songs are about not wallowing in sentiment, they’re more about following one’s muse, and hoot owls, coyotes, “wanderin’ for days,” chugging acoustic guitars and thoughts like this: “In my dreams we fly…together…just you and me.” Susan James also says she’s got “a compass for a heart and a pickaxe mind. ” Point is, Driving Toward the Sun is relatively short ‘n’ sweet, doesn’t wear out its welcome, and you really will want to hear it again and again.
More info about this great record at http://susanjamesmusic.com
–– John Payne