Joshua James—Build Me This—Intelligent Noise—2009
Yes, I know it’s hard to get past that album cover. Is that Noxema? Has he rolled himself in flour? If this reverse minstrelsy? Is he covering his face with curdled milk like Halle in Beloved? Or is he just trying to illustrate that he’s more tortured by the burden of his artistic genius than Sufjan Stevens is? Does it have anything to do with Michael Jackson? It’s a shame because the music on Joshua James’s new album, Build Me This, available digitally on September 8th, on CD September 22nd, is pretty amazing. In fact, I’ve just gotten word that there hasn’t been a bigger separation between the appeal of an album cover and the merit of the music inside since Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
Build Me This, James’s second full-length, contains chain-gang chants, country-fuzz rave-ups, gospel rafter-raisers, southern blues grinds, and civil war camp songs—usually all at the same time. It’s a dense mix, one that James’s frog-sultan voice sometimes has trouble keeping up with—he gets buried now and then in production values that suggest the record was recorded in the Lincoln Tunnel. James’s voice might have to grow on you—the closest match to his contorted drawl is Brett Dennan’s—and he often holds back with a shaky whisper a la fellow Nebraskan Conor Oberst, although James, unlike Oberst, has a strong third gear that he can call on when the music swells. It’s a relief to hear him let it rip, as on the surge in the middle of “Coal War,” the album’s stunning opener. That song reaches such awesome heights, it’s unfair to expect the rest of Build Me This to keep pace. I don’t know if it’s about labor unions or fossil fuels or what—more on lyrical murkiness in a sec—but it sounds excellent, with a working-on-the-railroad rhythmic chomp and a go-for-broke gospel-anthem chorus.
As satisfying as the music on this album is, the lyrics are decidedly dismal, both in content and effectiveness. There isn’t a clear narrative anywhere on the record, as the lines are deliberately nebulous so that any genuine extrapolation of the songs’ meanings is impossible. “We walked down and to the nearest drug store, a bottle of aspirin…[okay, I’m following you]…and a dirty pitchfork cured.” Huh? This sort of left-field WTF appears in every tune, alongside gloomy quasi-religious platitudes about coming home and the sorry state of the human soul—the road leads to destruction, we’ll all be damned in the morning, hate is all we show, how painful is our fate, and on and on. There’s a high school poetry feel to much of this, but James, at just 24 years old, has such an impressive alacrity for melodies and songcraft that it’s easy to cut him some slack.
It is, after all, impossible to deny how great the songs are—the gentle beauty of “Weeds,” the clever melodic twist of “Pitchfork,” the sublime tumbling folk of “Wilted Daisies”—which easily overcome the lyrical setbacks. There isn’t a weak track on the album, and James is a singer of great natural instincts, imbuing these tunes with emotion and taste throughout. James is just the kind of sad-sack indie folker who draws a cult following, and his profile has been steadily rising, but with a glut of fall roots releases, it’s possible that this record will fall through the cracks and go relatively unnoticed. It shouldn’t. Build Me This is one of the year’s nicest surprises and a darkhouse pick for the year-end lists.