Listening to Jamestown Revival’s acoustic-yet-soul-grooving Young Man, you can almost imagine the notes from the ghost of a sleazy label executive: “It’s great, gang,” the executive might ooze, teeth chomping a cigar, because this imaginary scene takes place long ago. “But let’s lose the fiddles and mix the drums higher. And is there any way for the singer to sound happier? Like it’s a party?”
One of the few bright spots to the music industry’s decimation is that this sort of character, looking to reduce music to its lowest common denominator, is no longer as prevalent, allowing artists to organically integrate pop sounds, like Jamestown Revival have done here on their own terms. Because the thing about Young Man is it’s hooky as anything. It might not be the frat house vibe the exec has in mind, but it’s still a good time. Jamestown Revival, also known as Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance, could quite easily sell out, at least back when selling out was a viable option for artists. But while their melodies are ear candy, the ingredients are pure, authentic roots and vegetables.
The rhythm and blues undercurrent is interesting and unexpected, since Jamestown Revival made Young Man without much electric guitar. You’d expect a more down-home sound, but Jamestown Revival use the space and darkness of acoustic instruments to push themselves into a pop-oriented direction, even with mischievous-sounding vocals that recall the Felice Brothers.
“Moving Man” is soulful, with a hint of a drumbeat, acoustic guitar that manages to sound electric, and a slitheringly sexy vocal hook in addition to a whisper of electric piano that could be on the track, but could also be superimposed by your mind’s expectations. Sped up with a bigger groove, you’d have a chart-topping Spotify hit. But left as is, it’s intimate in tone, but expansive in ambition, the sparseness of the instrumentation allowing the band to take a risk with the melody.
The title track similarly juxtaposes styles: It’s a country tune, complete with fiddle, but also with a chorus right out of the Doobie Brothers playbook — a band that Clay and Chance credit as an influence on the album. But the vocals are so mournful, and the instrumentation so straightforwardly stark, it feels timeless. “Old Man Looking Back” borrows Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” both the melody and a flaming lyric of “You got fire and I got time / Even though it’s no friend of mine.” Here Jamestown Revival slows everything down, adding atmospheric pedal steel that’s not taking the track from point A to point B so much as creating an anti-gravity field within the song, making the tune feel like a floating — but purposeful — swirl of roots sounds.
Singer-songwriter Robert Ellis produced Young Man, Jamestown Revival’s first time using an outside producer. Ellis’ own work has more of a playful sensibility than Jamestown Revival’s, but Young Man fits in with the band’s previous material. One suspects the combination of a new producer and more stripped-down instrumentation freed the group up to flirt with different melodies. This is by no means a crass sell-out, and thankfully there’s no record exec from a bygone era flipping these solid songs into soda commercial fodder. Instead it’s a serious collection of joyful songs with lots of hooks, but also lots of depth.