Darrin James, Thrones of Gold
Darrin James distills hard-edged soul and craggy Americana into a redolent tincture that I've come to think of as New York City Melting Pot. His gravelly voice and confident, grungy guitar work lend themselves equally well to rock and blues ("Trivial"), old-timey piano-driven numbers ("Had Enough of Me") and blue-eyed soul ("Hate That Word," "Duct Tape"). There's the obligatory, grim, Nick Cave-like folk ballad ("Herie"), but this one has a tumbling beat that takes it into original waters. Mandolin and ukelele feed the gentler folkiness of "Dusty Road," while haunting organ and thudding upright bass give other songs the slightly eerie, organic quality that Americana producers strive for.
James produced the CD himself, with expert support from a set of fine musicians. It's well-crafted all the way through. The only misstep is "Faith on the Run," which would be an excellent song but for an uncomfortable resemblance to Tom Petty's "Last Dance with Mary Jane."
Its literate lyrics and subject matter are a big part of why Thrones of Gold stands as one of the best indie productions of the year so far. "Long lost, slightly sauced/And swingin' from a vine/She was a dose of imperfection/Left me danglin', out of time/I sold my disposition for a nickel and a dime/But now she's had enough of me." "Lucky Man," on the other hand, expresses the eternal strangeness of the situation of the more successful male: "I'm a Lucky man/I know who I am/Never done the best that I can/So I'm Lucky that I got you."
Politics and worldliness run through a number of songs. The subject of "Herie" "fought in the war for Iran/He had a dream of freer land/His family was murdered/In front of his eyes/But I've never seen him cry." Meanwhile, you can almost picture the narrator of the title track sitting in a weirdly angular apartment deep in Brooklyn, watching war news on TV, wringing his hands, and dreaming:
I'm goin' somewhere I've never been
My life here is at an end
I'll be an honest man with a calloused hand
Goin' where people don't work so hard
No one's gonna show me no business card
I'm outta here.
Available, with extended clips, at CD Baby.
Karen Jacobsen, Kissing Someone Else
Karen Jacobsen, an Australian singer-songwriter-pianist now based in (yawn) New York (everyone seems to come here sooner or later), has an excellent melodic sense, and her clear, unaffected voice actually deserves the often-overused term "angelic." Her lyrics range from sinewy ("If I am so amazing why is everything so crazy?") to overly cliched ("my life is a tomb of endless broken dreams"), but her innocent-sounding delivery and skill at choral arranging make the sentiment go down easier, and the strong melodies solidify the whole CD. Hooky pop-rockers like "So Fast", "Afterthought," and the title track, as well as ballads like "The River of My Life" and quirky, heavily arranged pieces like "Merry Go Round" all display these talents.