Samuel James: For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen

Book of Samuel, Vol. 3

For the ages, and For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen

It’s so easy not to think about the music Samuel James makes much at all. Built from the very pillars of American music, it’s easy to dismiss it as an homage, a throwback, a curiosity. And it is all those things, with James’ ageless voice – he could be 20 or 80 – and variety of stringed instruments that scoff at modern technology [this originally ran in 2009].

In some ways, it’s downright innocuous, as likely to appeal to toddlers and grandmothers as the modern-day equivalents of those who marveled at blind-old (a young 40, actually) Doc Watson when he played the Newport Folk Festival for the first time in 1963.

But it’s hard, also, not to think about issues of race and class when you hear Samuel James play this music, in this way. Just as it’s striking to see the straight-laced, square-framed earnest and preppy young men and women applauding politely in front of the ivy and brick for Watson on the Newport lawns in those old black-and-white photos (“Gee, Nelson, I really do think this hillbilly music is what America was built on, don’t you?”; “By all means, Amanda, I do. Let’s say we drink bourbon tonight in his honor — it’s made down in Kentucky, you know”), so, too, is it interesting to imagine our white-bread populace here in Maine marveling as they do at James’ “Big Blacker Ben,” where he updates us on Ben’s exploits by telling a story of him being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night by hooded Klansmen because of rumors he’s “been with white women.”

Making America’s historical black eye funny=hard to do, but James pulls it off: “Never in my life have I seen such cowardly racists/ You’re too scared to even let this black man see your faces/ And one by one they pulled their hoods off their heads/ He said, ‘You’re all just as ugly as all your wives said.’ ”

They try to hang Ben, but the rope turns out to be too long. James chuckles.

It’s no big thing, right? A modern artist creating new traditionals? Telling stories you’ve never heard, but seem familiar? Theoretically, those old traditionals aren’t all that brilliant to begin with. “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad?” I think I could have thought that one up myself, given enough time with the G, C, and D chords. The thing is, though, no one has ever thought up “I’ve Haddock up to Here” before, and not only does James do a silly song without it making you wince in embarrassment, he makes you wonder why it’s not in the songbook they give to new students when they sign up for classes at that 317 Main Street bluegrass academy in Yarmouth.

Ultimately, I’d argue James’ genius comes not in the whistle solo on “Rosa’s Sweet Little Love Song,” or the crescendo up the neck on “A Sugar Smallhouse Valentine,” or the manic and intense double time of “Trouble on Congress Street Rag,” but in the way he makes it seem so genuine and important.

Noreen? “She’s dancing for the Philistines.” Like “Old Joe Clark” and “Angelina Baker” before them, James’ characters are society’s underbelly and underclass, sometimes recognizable in today’s strippers and working poor, sometimes historical figures that make us pine for days when heroes and good guys were easier to come by (as if they ever were).

“John Ross Said” is as low-down and dirty as Andrew Jackson treated its title character, the first elected leader of the Cherokee and the man who oversaw the trail of tears that left “Oklahoma ground forever red.” What did John Ross actually say? “We are overwhelmed; our hearts are sickened; our utterance is paralyzed, when we reflect on the condition in which we are placed by the audacious practices of unprincipled men.” Isn’t that a sentence that could have been said last week? To say that James does Ross justice is enough high praise.

On this third full-length album of original material, James continues to grow as an artist. He fingerpicks better than ever, sure, and the production leaves you feeling like you just spent 10 hours with the man in a jail cell, but it’s the gravitas you notice now. He no longer conveys the air of a man playing a character. He has become the role he’s asked himself to play.

Project Dark: …And It Was Black

Let there be Dark

KGB and Moshe unleash a Project five years in the making

The last time DJ/producer/label head Moshe appeared in this column [this originally ran in the winter of 2007], it was posited he had “raised dark and gloomy to a hip-hop art form,” which I meant as a compliment. As a purveyor of his own kind of goth-hop (goth-tronica?), there is no mistaking a Moshe track, full of deep fuzzy synths, half-time beats, and disconcerting samples that are just as Romantic as that new By Blood Alone album.

Now, with partner KGB/Syn the Shaman, he has found his calling with Project Dark’s …And It Was Black, a 13-track concept album of sorts, released by Milled Pavement Records, that shows that minimalist production paired with cogent and crisply delivered lyrics can effect a very interesting piece of art/music, indeed.

Central to the album is a spiraling narrative lifted from/referencing the thirtysomething cult classic River’s Edge, which not only stars Keanu Reeves, but also tells the charming tale of a guy who’s killed his girlfriend for “talking shit” and is reveling in showing off her dead body to his buddies (while they get stoned, if I recall correctly). Somehow, this material both suits Project Dark’s musical intentions and allows them get fairly deep.

[[Editor’s note: Normally, I embed something so you can listen to the album, but I can’t find anything online. It looks like Spotify won’t let the album play because there’s a U.K. group called “Project Dark,” and Spotify is either giving them priority for the name or is just confused. I think Last.fm might be a place you can download it, so that link is here.]]

The first track allows us voyeuristic entrance to an argument that gets rather heated, though our protagonist has done little more than wake his gal up: “I said I’m fucking sorry/ You don’t have to act this way/ But I see how are/ Overdramatic basket case.” On top of Moshe’s languid keyboard line, KGB anchors the track with a delivery that’s monotone and methodical, setting the tone for an album that will proceed to feature an emotional detachment and destruction always personified by his half-rap/half-drone.

By “Practice Makes Perfect Sense,” Project Dark are past the murder and considering the consequences. KGB’s voice is resigned, but with a hint of sing-song, which is all the more creepy, amped up by Moshe’s crazed samples like Hitchcock’s birds chirping. “I should have used a chain, maybe a few bricks,” we’re told, as the body floats. “You’re floating to your grave, and I’ll miss you.” Just as River’s Edge sought to comment on the broken nature of a generation (see Less than Zero for the rich people’s version), here Project Dark seem to mock the it’s-not-my-fault generation, as though actions they commit are completely beyond their control.

This disassociation is paired with an intense self-loathing and –pitying that’s impressive. “The Funeral” opens with a riff on Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35 (the “Funeral March,” of course) accompanied by a soft conga beat and a plodding snare. Then KGB just internalized everything: “Now everything’s ruined/ Just blame it on me … I’ll drive you crazy/ And I’ll make you hate me … Just like a disease/ And there’s no way to treat it.” It is an exploration into what it is to be dark, what makes us dark, what makes some of us fear it, some of us embrace it, and some of us embody it.

In KGB’s case, he has no choice. “I’ll never walk away,” he exhales, “because I’m addicted to the pain.”

The title track, then, is wish-fulfillment, and Moshe signals this with a cheery church organ, joined by an elastic beat that ripples through the mix. As our protagonist offs himself, “death slowly sliding down the back of my throat/ Like a plastic cup of cough medicine,” we almost cheer it. He’s gotten what he wanted, if not necessarily what he deserved.

His soul travels through “Exist Through This,” paired with a two-note keyboard movement like a truncated 2001: A Space Odyssey, before becoming “Residue,” full of a slight right-hand piano and a shuddering and descending guitar line. At this point, denial has completely set in. “Forever I will have to ask myself/ Was there something that I could do/ To prevent you from leaving me/ Without a chance to say goodbye?”

Who’s left whom, now? Mixed way to the back, Sontiago’s voice echoes like a conscience.

It’s no wonder KGB/Syn and Moshe/Whispers (so Moshe’s character is given on the back of the packaging) took more than five years creating this. It is executed precisely from start to finish, is listenable and engaging, and yet occupies a musical genre that should be largely foreign to most listeners. They have introduced an audience to a concept that by all rights should be abhorrent and made it sympathetic, a difficult task, indeed.

It is enough to make an accompanying full album of remixes, Director’s Cut, worth the listen, even if just for the five versions of the title track. The C Money Burns version sounds like it could have been released straight out of 1983 Brooklyn. Highkoo’s is the “Delsym Remix,” which should be amusing for anyone with children.

The package represents 30 tracks of a dark and gloomy artform. Perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon.