July 13, 2020

FTV: Peggy James – “Paint Still Wet”

     While the live music industry has been in a COVID-19 induced coma, artists have gone to great lengths to fill up their empty calendars.  Some have spent the time pumping out socially distanced events on social media while others have hit the studio.  Whether they have been low tech phone affairs or higher tech outings with more reliable equipment, all have helped keep our minds off the pandemic. Motivated artists are using this unfortunate pause in their livelihoods to create new music and from the tunes I have heard during the first five months of the shutdown, none are better than the twelve new tracks Peggy James has crafted in this time frame.

     It was one of those ‘kismet’ moments that put Peggy’s new CD “Paint Still Wet” in my ears.  I sent a quick ‘hope you are well’ email to our friend Gary Tanin at Daystorm Music and his reply lifted my spirits instantly.  Gary replied, “We are doing well.  I was just thinking about you.  Peggy James has been working on a new album.  Would you mind taking a listen?”  We last discussed Peggy James in this space when we reviewed her 2018 release “Nothing in Between” {FTV:  Peggy James 6-6-18} so the only thing I could tell Gary was, “Send it!” 

     Peggy James is one of those artists whose music could be labeled many ways, it is best to just say she is a gifted singer-songwriter.  There might be a touch more country twang in her songs than some other pop-country artists, but she is capable of delivering many distinct styles.  At times she reminds me of Joni Mitchell (both vocally and lyrically), otherwise she pretty much does her own thing.  James writes great story songs and it is impossible not to nod along with the pace and rhythm of her music.  Here is a brief blow by blow of the twelve tracks on Paint Still Wet.  This is so hot off the press that I have limited information about the players involved other than Peggy James, producer Jim Eannelli and cameo artist appearances by Daryl Stuermer (Genesis/Phil Collins), and Jim Liban (legendary harmonica virtuoso).

     Track 1 – Let’s Fly Away – From the opening strum, this song displays how to orchestrate a radio friendly single.   Before the end of the first verse, James has delivered on her promise to ‘Take you where the fireflies shine’ on a warm summer night.’  The minimal tremolo guitar and picking support the lyrics exceedingly well.  It is a solid opening track with understated drumming at the foundation and a beautiful violin lead break.  Her vocal style is uniquely her own but yet Peggy sounds familiar.

    Track 2 – Wiser – James has the ability to make her voice sound wistful without it sounding wispy.  A strummer’s delight with minimal percussion, Wiser is a lovely song.  When her voice climbs at the end of the chorus to verse bridge, the sighing quality of her voice can only be described as ‘lovely’.  As with her last album, it takes time to absorb all the musical elements.  I also find it takes several listening sessions before the impact of the vocals becomes more apparent.  Peggy James has a way with casting cinematic imagery from words!

    Track 3 – Holdin’ Hands – After the change in rhythm and tone presented on Wiser, the arrangement of Holdin’ Hands goes back to something more similar to Let’s Fly Away.  The echoing background vocals and steel guitar are crystal clear.  The drum and bass tones are perfect for this kind of jangly tune.  The Byrds meet a 1960s girl group and magic happens in Holdin’ Hands.  Name checking The Beatles hints at Peggy’s inspiration here.  It also features a masterful guitar break.

    Track 4 – San Antone – I hadn’t even looked at the title yet, but the opening chords of San Antone popped the word ‘southwest’ into my head.  The lyrics say ‘If you ever get to Texas, try and stop in San Antone’ but the stylish guitar work by Daryl Stuermer of Genesis and Phil Collins Band fame makes you feel like you are already there.  This is a traveller’s tune that tells the listener exactly what kind of impression San Antone left on James’ soul. 

    Track 5 – Can’t do Lonely Anymore –  Time to change up the pace and James offers up a slower honky tonk blues.  I can almost picture a 1920’s cabaret singer working in front of a smoky club audience.  All the elements are there:  the tinkling piano, the strummed guitar, soft hi-hat and drums beats with a soulful guitar break.  I don’t mean to say it sounds ‘dated’, it just wasn’t a style I expected.  Can’t do Lonely Anymore  is a great track that showcases her chameleon-like vocal abilities.

    Track 6 – Sailor Knots – Perhaps being locked up at home spurred Peggy to write about being somewhere else.  Sailor Knots is another example of how she is able to write tracks that aren’t propelled by percussion, but still move.  The ethereal background vocals that come in around the 2:00 minute mark are, again, lovely.  James’ technique of echoing certain phrases makes sure you are picking up the rich imagery she has created.  Sailor Knots has an irresistible pulse to it.  The tempo change as the song nears 4:00 minutes closes the song eloquently.

    Track 7 – Lighter Than a Feather – “You were once dead weight now you’re lighter than a feather” is a wonderful way to get the listener’s attention.  Beyond the sentiments about ‘soaring on the wind’ are so many interesting musical elements that this track actually makes you feel a little light headed.  With all the heavy stuff going on in the world right now, this is a balm for the soul.  The combination of drums, swirling string like effects and background vocals added in just the right measure make this a great song.  I am not sure if Peggy has listened to the band Lucius but the drum work on Lighter Than a Feather reminds me a lot of their style.  This is a song that evokes a host of emotions from both the musical arrangement and the lyrics.

     Track 8 – Head Over Heels – The lead guitar style here reminds me of George Harrison.  Toss in a soulful harp lead by harmonica virtuoso Jim Liban (yes, I seem to find a lot of soulful moments on the album), and a whole list of artists who would love to cover this track comes to mind.  Anyone who has ever gone Head Over Heels will be able to relate to the lyric

    Track 9 – Nothin’s the Same – A different beat, more great guitar.  Slow calypso?  The shimmery guitar break over syncopated drums and bass make me want to dance.  The lyrics are about change and James is able to make the story sound more introspective than maudlin.  It isn’t about the current pandemic, but the central thought of Nothin’s the Same could be applied to what is going on in the world today.

    Track 10 – Fallen Star – Cue the jukebox.  There isn’t a C&W beer joint in the world that would not put this tune in rotation.  From the rimshot clops to the swaying guitar rhythm, Fallen Star really brings out the country cry in Peggy’s voice.  The southwestern vibe of the guitar break is terrific.  Jim Eannelli’s guitar work enshrines his fretboard brilliance.  James sings about San Diego, but maybe she was still thinking about San Antone?

     Track 11 – Scarlet and Gold – Now how does one interject a little Elton John into a track like this?  The beat and lyrics again pick up the album’s pace a bit.  The ‘Ahhs’ that bridge the verses scream ‘Yellow Brick Road’ and this isn’t meant as a criticism.  Scarlet and Gold is an original tune and having it remind me of a classic album like YBR puts the song writing on an exceedingly high pedestal. There are multiple candidates for ‘singles’ on this album and this is one of them.

    Track 12 – Gettin’ Serious – The most distinctive style change on this album comes in the form of Gettin’ Serious.  It sounds like a live recording, but without album notes, I can’t say that for sure (remember, the classic ‘live’ version of Get Ready by Rare Earth was cut in the studio with the crowd noise added later).  The thumping drums and rhythm guitar are the driving wheels and one could see this at either end of a concert as an opener or show closer.  As with many of Peggy’s arrangements, there is a lot going on in the background but none of it distracts from the song itself. If it was recorded live prior to everything shutting down, it got a great crowd reaction.

     Paint Still Wet is Peggy James’ second winning record in a row.  She would be a wonderful addition to the 2121 Porcupine Music Festival when we get the world back in shape.  This will stand as one of the most creative musical adventures to come out of this strange time.  As soon as we have information about the album’s release, we will pass it along.  It has been a long several months and anticipating the release of this new album gives us all something to look forward to.

Thanks to Gary at Daystorm Music for giving us an advance preview of Peggy’s latest release. (ED. Due out Q3, September 18th, 2020 on Happy Growl Records)


Top Piece Video:  In One Ear and Out the Other from Peggy James 2018 album Nothing in Between