Pensive strains of guitar open this sublime extended play CD by the duo – Clay Parker and Jodi James. While I am not a big follower of this kind of music there is a redeeming value to it. It teeters on the high ledge of angst that Nick Drake, Tim Hardin, Townes Van Zandt and Tim Buckley often tread. At times, it is a clear expression like the lone bare trees you see on an early snowy morning.
The opener is “Come Back,” and immediately the combined vocals ache with sincerity and the contrast between the individual voices is effective. Fireworks will not go off in your head with this music but if you’re sitting in a big easy chair with your favorite legal lubricant, a pair of good head phones and you just want to zone out and think and have relaxed sensitive entertainment – this Clay Parker and Jodi James will open the valve and allow you to run with them on an early snowy morning.
A little more upbeat but still driving at cruise speed is the more melodic “What It Knows.” This track pushes a little more forward with the vocal showcase. Jodi is more up front and Clay just supports gently, and cuts through just when needed. There is a thread of old time folk singing in their tonality. A little Richard and Mimi Farina for sure, some Nino Tempo and April Stevens from the early 60’s – check “All Strung Out,” on You Tube.
Eventually, I would like to hear Clay and Jodi develop into what Lyme & Cybelle were on their fantastic track “Follow Me,” which was ingenious vocally and with dynamic guitar work. Clay and Jodi have that creative vein in their spirit as well but I just feel they are – holding back. Trying to concentrate on mood more than intensity and showboating. With Lyme and Cybelle the creativity came from “Lyme” who morphed into Warren Zevon years later.
What am I saying? Well, to maintain audience interest at some point they are going to have to inject some energy into their repertoire. Far more than what is displyed here at this time. Not a lot. Just at that level where “Follow Me,” was and they will be mining a rich vein of songwriting and performance. They both have the voices for it.
“Moonshiner,” continues with an emotionally rich tone and this is one of Jodi’s finest vocals. Wonderful acoustic guitar work and Clay’s vocals, once again, light and under the surface like Jodi’s conscience. Nice Paul Buller pedal steel guitar hovers over Jodi’s vocals and the song takes on the shape of an excellent folk ballad. Beautiful lyrics and arrangement. This proves they are on the right track; despite being stuck in one speed. They still need to infuse a little but their quality is evident and that’s key. They have quality.
“Moonshiner” is the single song that is traditional on this collection and not an original. But that’s fine – it proves they can cover a song effectively and leave their signature on it. When the instrumentation comes together in the break it’s haunting and well distinguished. Sometimes this kind of performance can be harder to achieve than just letting it go into a bombastic performance. Here, any mistake can be heard. There are no mistakes here.
Jodi’s voice has moments when it’s in that same tight melodic laid back but reverent style that Tracey Thorn is known for in Everything but the Girl. Their “Missing,” is a good example. While that band uses electronics and heavier beats it’s just the difference between cruising on a paved road or a fine dirt road. Parker and James prefer the fine dirt road and they succeed with their formula. They just need a little more gravel in their approach. Maybe that gravel is in “Showboatin’” which is more upbeat, fun and light-hearted. Clay’s voice is more upfront and classic in this genre and the old-fashioned vaudeville air is a fresh musical breath. Young people shouldn’t even know about these type of songs or if they do – just in passing. But it’s obvious I miscalculated. Their take has substance, there’s nothing hokey. The pedal steel just winds around beautifully and never in your face. The lyrics are interesting and it sounds like it could have been written in the 1920’s. “Hot scandal…,” a “…vandal breakin’ in…” Nice. It’s the type of song that would be great to end a late night radio show with.
On “Meditation Blues,” this duo has found its stride. Sounds a little like a genuine hoe-down tune in the tradition of John Prine. Even the way they pronounce their words it rings of vintage Prine. Is it copying? No. It’s a hat tip to a legendary songwriter and they have done John Prine fine. Vocals are on the money, music is playful and the lyrics would make John Prime smile. I have this one on repeat. It has the flavor that was evident on John Prine’s classic “In Spite of Ourselves,” which Prine sang with Iris DeMent. While Jodi’s vocals are not as eccentric-country as Ms. DeMent’s she does have that Dolly Parton slick, fluid entertaining tone.
The final track on this short excursion: “After the Smoke Clears.” It opens with some satisfyingly slow and rustic quality guitar. The vocals are sublime again, subtle and the phrasing is sincere. It’s a warm poignant little tune and is rich in its cover-ability. I can’t see this one being ignored by the likes of an Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin, Deborah Holland or even Linda Thompson. This is a song that is weightless yet…yet…it has substance. Tightly structured, the technique is absorbing. This song played live would render the audience quiet that you could hear a pin drop. It deserves that respect.
On first listen I wasn’t impressed with the over-all six songs. I thought they were too melodramatic. But after the second and third listens I was hooked. This is an album that will need to be listened to and not just played in the background. It has to marinate in your musical soul. The flavors will come as you slice it all down and take each piece by piece individually…chew slowly and let the taste linger in your mind. That’s what this is. Give it a chance…give it time. Slowly, a few of these songs, as it did to me, will stick. It is for select tastes and for discriminating ears. But it will make an impression…it will.
If not, then go back to your Willie Nelson and Nanci Griffith. But when singers like those two are looking for material to put on their next album – I wouldn’t doubt they would turn to songwriters and singers like Clay Parker and Jodi James.
Both Clay Parker and Jodi James together and solo have quite a deep discography and it’s worth exploring. This six song EP was recorded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with all songs written by Clay Parker & Jodi James except “Moonshiner” (traditional). Arrangement by Clay Parker and Jodi James.
Clay Parker Website: http://clayparkermusic.com/
Jodi James Website: http://jodijamesmusic.com/
Music Samples: http://cpjjmusic.com/music
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / June 2016