Detroit singer and songwriter Darrin James and his band released in October 2016 a 10-track album titled Strange Storm. Said storm refers to today’s climate of “constant violence, blatant greed, religious hypocrisy, and political chaos”, themes that will no doubt resonate with many listeners.
James and his crew draw their musical inspiration from a diversity of genres including folk, blues, funk, and rock. While he takes care of guitars, lead vocals, the organ, and the kalimba, Strange Storm also features as supporting vocalist Thornetta Davis, Detroit’s “Queen of the Blues” as well as a number of musicians: Dan Bennett (saxophone), Tim Haldeman (saxophone), Ross Huff (trumpet), Dave Johnsen (bass), Phil Kester (drums and percussion), Dan Piccolo (drums and percussion), Ingrid Racine (trumpet), Heather Schwartz (backing vocals), Justin Walter (trumpet), and Brittany Willis (backing vocals).
The album opens and closes with very similar-sounding songs. While both combine only an acoustic guitar with James’ vocals, the folk-flavoured “Walking in the Footsteps” and “Still Believe in Love” give the impression that the singer-songwriter believes in God. The latter is particularly powerful in a very raw fashion. James lists a whole bunch of horrific things that are happening around the world in an almost cheerful manner, interspacing each mini-list with a chorus emphasizing that he still believed in love. While the message is great, the point-blank descriptions can be a little jarring for some listeners; hopefully they will cling to the same belief that keeps James going.
The use of funk also gives the listeners the distinct impression that while James takes the darker themes on the album quite seriously, he isn’t dejected or depressed by them. Rather, we get the feeling that James is empowered enough to face them as much as he can. The horn-driven “Strange Storm” has some very raw vocals. The bursts of horns around which the verses and chorus are built give the track a sense of almost stressful anticipation, as if channeling the constant pressure people can be under in this world. The slow “All Around Us” is very intense, with a repetitive chorus driving in the point that “war is all around us”.
James also uses blues in a way that doesn’t leave the listener depressed or dejected, but rather questioning and even energized enough to arise and act. The uptempo rocker “Dangerous Kind” features the same kind of raw vocals and urgency-producing horns as in “Strange Storm”. The slow and throbbing “You Never Know” is one of the most intense numbers of the set and reflects the type of anger that has been channeled into action.
As if to offer listeners the opportunity to reflect on the matters raised, James sprinkled the album with a few instrumental tracks. “Slow Trickle or the Rising Tide” features beats that sound African and Indian. The combination of basic percussion with modern-sounding electronic touches seems to be a sort of reminder that we should figure out how to live together in harmony despite such big differences. The jazz rock of “Downdrafts Cold Fronts” has some pretty chaotic-sounding instrumentation that seems to reflect the mess in the world the other numbers talk about.
Strange Storm comes off as a series of entries on the state of society with an ultimate message of hope for the future. Tracks are available for streaming on Bandcamp. More information about Darrin James and his band is available on their official website and on their Facebook page.