Jemima James - When You Get Old
The thirteen song When You Get Old marks only Jemima James’ second album in a thirty seven year span. Her first recording, At Longview Farm, is being released in conjunction with it and it displays a clear evolution from her youthful 1979 compositions to When You Get Old’s much more stripped back, emotionally sophisticated songwriting. She has become a singer of great understated nuance in that time as well. Many of the songs on When You Get Old have a strong blues pedigree and James proves herself quite capable of flexing some gritty muscle in that direction without ever sounding unconvincing or else like she’s straining for effect. Her smiling, sleepy vocals on some of the more country-ish numbers stands in sharp contrast to the seriousness of some of the lyrics but, like you can with blues, a certain amount of this pose can be considered as part of the smiling to keep from crying school of singing. She has great emotiveness in her voice and a canny talent for winding her singing tightly into the arrangement of each song.
While there’s some blues influence in this album, the most important strains laced through this music are decidedly country and folk in origin. James doesn’t have an overpowering voice, but none of the material on this album requires vocal pyrotechnics. Instead, When You Get Old focuses much more on intimacy than strength. The title song opens things and illustrates these points quite well. James, as a songwriter, has a masterful way of delivering weighty sentiments with smiling aplomb. She caresses each line out of her vocal chords with sensitivity and never adopts an aggressive vocal posture. The second song “Magician” emphasizes this strength. She revels in the literary possibilities that the subject matter affords to her and gives listeners quite an inspired vocal without, once again, ever overwhelming the listener.
This song first philosophy continues for the duration of the album. “If I Could Only Fly” will resonate with many listeners because James writes so well and, as a vocalist, completely inhabits the imaginative landscape she creates with her songs. “If It’s the End”, one of the album’s best songs, is perhaps the pinnacle of her ability to marry low-key traditional country music with nuanced lyrical material. The words, standing on their own, are serviceable and have great strength, but it’s James’ ability to create subtext through her phrasing that distinguishes songs like this from the rest of the pack. “Sensible Shoes” revisits the opening song from At Longview Farm to great effect. The full-band arrangement that powered the original is forsaken here in favor of the same bare bones approach that characterizes the whole album.
“Golden Boy” is a solid traditional country song with bluesy color shooting through the arrangement. It’s a lyrically affectionate song, easily one of the album’s most affectionate numbers, and James delivers it with great phrasing while still avoiding any overt sentimentality. “Tennessee Blues” continues her exploration of classic country musical textures infused with a blues influence and the lyric, quite simple on the surface, gains much from another strong James vocal. The restrained mid-tempo shuffle of “One and Only” has great drumming and another top shelf performance from James’ collaborators. The album’s final track, “Nothing New”, brings this artful album to a satisfying conclusion and allows James a chance to perform a completely solo piece. When You Get Old carries underrated power and panache in the same streamlined package and anyone who loves folk, country, and a little blues will undoubtedly find this to be one of the year’s best efforts in that vein.
8 out of 10 stars.