By Scott Roberts
Once in a while, an artist or an
album bursts on the scene that seems absolutely destined to be huge, both in
critical accolades and sales. Of course, there are always intangibles that come
into play that inexplicably stop a CD or musician from reaching those rarified
heights, but barring such catastrophic occurrences, singer/songwriter Joshua
James seems poised to reach that superstar status with his sophomore effort, Build Me This. Unfortunately, there also
seems to be something a bit forced and calculated about the entire thing.
From the opening song, the spiritually-infused “Coal War,” which begins
subtly with a hushed, sing-song near-a capella and evolves into an anthemic
rocker then adds some military drumming followed by some screamed vocals before
settling back into a reprise of the beginning, to the similarly arranged closer
“Benediction,” Joshua James seems totally hell-bent on getting his message
across, hopefully to millions of adoring fans and critics.
But what is the
message? The often heavy-handed lyrics deal with God and racism and poverty and
loneliness, but it’s difficult to ascertain what James is trying to say about
these subjects, other than perhaps “singing about these issues will make people
take me seriously, even though I’m only 25 and this is just my second record.”
Also, the colloquial quality of some of James’ lyrics — “I ain’t open my eyes
till we all walk free” (“Coal War”) or “…we’re livin’ where our feet done land”
(“Magazine”) can come off as pretentious or too much of an affectation, though
he is clearly sincere in his delivery and his message. Whatever that is.
And then there’s the CD cover depicting only James’ face in what appears
to be caked-on white war paint of some sort, enough to cover most of his face,
but not quite enough to conceal his
soulful, Jared Leto-like eyes. Why is he painted white? Isn’t he mysterious?
Isn’t he deep? Is he making some sort of statement about racial inequality? I,
for one, have no idea.
All this being said, musically speaking there actually is a lot to like
on Build Me This, such as the jaunty,
down-home “Annabelle” and the mournful “Mother Mary.” Admittedly, James has a
remarkable voice. He just needs to learn to use it hosestly.