Album Of The Week

Singing of hope and empathy

Welcome 2018 with a beautiful, heartfelt covers record by My Morning Jacket's Jim James

Jim James' gravity-defying tenor lends songs an air of alien wonder.
Jim James' gravity-defying tenor lends songs an air of alien wonder.PHOTOS: ATO

If 2017 has been a roller-coaster, or even an annus horribilis, for some of you, here's wishing 2018 would signal a turn-around of fate and circumstance.

And what's better than to start the year on a genial note with Jim James' wondrous voice?

His latest is a covers album that comes seemingly from nowhere, like a shooting star in the middle of the night or a brief spell of magic.

Tribute To 2 isn't showy, comparatively more stripped-down than his work as a frontman of the Kentucky cosmic rockers My Morning Jacket.

A palate cleanser, it is a follow-up to Tribute To, a covers EP of George Harrison songs, which in itself was an utterly personal quirk, recorded days after The Beatle's passing in December 2001.

It feels opportune in a current climate of polarising factions, especially coming after his previous solo outing, Eternally Even (2016), his most explicit response to post-election America.

The latest covers album is a trans-Atlantic sojourn through genre and time, lobbying for hope and empathy when the tendency is to divide.



    Jim James


    4 stars

James addresses this in The World Is Falling Down, originally sung in 1991 by African-American jazz singer and civil rights advocate Abbey Lincoln.

"There are some folks I used to know/Who used to smile and say hello/And spin the world and turn the page," he sings with a tinge of wistfulness, voice reverberating through space as the guitar strums.

This is echoed by a telling opener, I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, the Beach Boys classic from 1966's Pet Sounds, which James turns into a psychedelic soul ballad, an inter-generation dialogue between misfits.

"I keep looking for a place to fit/Where I can speak my mind/I've been trying hard to find the people/That I won't leave behind," he sings, as the strings swell over a sample of Isaac Hayes' 166 version of Jimmy Webb's By The Time I Get To Phoenix.

He achieves another subtle subversion in his version of Sonny & Cher's Baby Don't Go, taking on both male and female parts, a move resonant in these post-Harvey Weinstein times when gender expectations are being probed and redefined.

Even when times are bad, he seeks communion in a honky-tonk version of Bob Dylan's I'll Be Your Baby Tonight, a stripped-down revision of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's prog-rock doozie Lucky Man, and a bewitching, gypsy-jazz take on the Irvin Berlin's standard Blue Skies.

As usual, it's his gravity-defying tenor that lends the proceedings an air of alien wonder.

Crying In The Chapel, a doo-wop 1950s classic variously covered by Elvis Presley and the Orioles, is transformed into a private confession in a cavern.

It's poignant precisely because it sounds hopeful. Such is the beautiful, bountiful heart of Jim James.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2018, with the headline 'Singing of hope and empathy'. Subscribe