May 29, 2018

From the Vaults: Peggy James

   Ever hear of Peggy James?  I am willing to bet after her new album Nothing In Between drops in late June, she won’t be such a well kept secret.  James is a Milwaukee singer/songwriter who has opened for the likes of Iris Dement, da BoDeans, and Salt Creek.  The album, her fourth, was produced, engineered, and mixed by Jim Eannelli who also provided guitar, bass, keyboards, percussion and backing vocals as only a veteran studio wizard could.  Our old friend Gary Tanin from Daystorm Music in Milwaukee mastered the recording and sent it along to us to preview in late April.  Happy Growl Records is planning to release the album on June 29, 2018.

    The PR sheet accompanying Nothing In Between noted that she has drawn comparisons to Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Colvin, and Sarah McLachlan.  I hear all of these influences in bits and pieces, but I would like to add a side of Carol King and a singer/songwriter that I have listened to for twenty some years, Amy Rigby from New York state.  I hadn’t thought much of Rigby in recent memory, but there was something in James’ delivery that compelled me to look up Rigby again just to see if I was imagining the similarities.  I wasn’t and there is a side bonus here because Rigby sent me a copy of her most recent CD The Old Guys which we will cycle through in the near future.

    Getting back to Peggy James’ record, the first thing that jumped out of the headphones was the clarity of the production and the mix.  The instrumentation couldn’t sound cleaner if one was sitting in the middle of the studio listening to James track the songs. The second and third bonafides here are the genre spanning nature of James songs and the genre hopping ability she possesses in both her writing and performance.  When she is in “pop” mode, she sells it just as well as she sells the more countrified tunes. Piano ballads? Piece of cake. It would be very difficult to put this LP in any one particular box because there are so many interesting elements here.

   The clean sounding organ/acoustic guitar intro of “We Had to Meet” pulls you right into the first track.  James voice alternates between a breathy, sultry feel and a semi-falsetto.  Perhaps it was the way she phrased the line “Forces of steel in a magnetic field” that sent me back to Walter Egan’s 1978 hit Magnet and Steel, but the layered vocals that peak toward the end of the chorus took it to another level.   The laid back drum grove, expressively deep lyrics, and the moving organ licks make this an ear-catching introduction to James’ music.  We Had to Meet” is about the inevitability of two people meeting, but it is also a great introduction to James’ story telling ability.

    X-Files” could have come from the Chris Isaak “interesting guitar hook” school of songwriting.  The tremolo-laced lick that precedes each line couples with a latin-influenced drum grove and outstanding background vocals to make this a catchy number.  The middle section changes the tempo, guitar figure and feel before dropping back in to “Chris Isaak” mode. Walking away from this song humming the opening guitar figure means it is memorable, enough so that the haunting feel of  the whole song stuck with me a long while. Peggy doesn’t just write songs, she records feelings transmitted in the form of songs.

    Jame’ music is certainly guitar based but the keyboard work throughout the album is just outstanding.  If I had been drumming on these sessions, I would be very happy with how the drums were presented in the mix throughout this album.  In the case of “An Hour With You,” the laid back beat holds things together under the piano and strings which are added to sweeten the feel.  The emotional quality of the lyrics, James’ delivery and mood of the track as a whole definitely makes the listener feel something.  Whether it is yearning or wistfulness, the emotion is left up to you.

    Another track with a similarly haunting quality is Lover.”  There is just something about this arrangement that is very different from the typical lost love lament.  I am not sure what James was feeling when she wrote and recorded Lover” and I am not exactly sure what it makes me feel, but I know that she has again tweaked me on a deeper emotional level than simply Baby, Baby, Baby.  “Lover” sounds sonically and dimensionally huge enough to be used as one of those opening credit scroll songs in a James Bond movie.

    The title track “Nothing In Between” opens with a simple drum and piano intro and as soon as James hit the first verse I thought “Carole King”.  Not an out and out homage or copy of King’s work, but certainly a hint of her style both musically and lyrically.  The balance between the vocals, drums, bass, and piano is just right. By this fifth track, I thought I had a handle on the Peggy James’ formula and boy, was I happily wrong!  If Jimmy Buffet or perhaps Joss Stone were looking for a song to cover,  Muscle Man” would not be a bad choice.  The Caribbean feel knocked me out of my seat because it was just not expected.   It is a great tune performed with all the trappings of the islands and as “Muscle Man” faded out, I thought, “Okay,  now what?” How about a little country feel?

    Gotta Have A Love” kicks off as bouncy and country as they come.  Not knowing a lot about James background, it leaves her inspirations open to conjecture:  Juice Newton?  The Judds?  Where ever she picked up her country chops, she learned them well.  The steel guitar and straight boom – chick drumming (with a little Roy Clark guitar thrown in” makes this not just “country” but “great country”.  Continuing in the C&W vein, “In One Ear (and Out the Other)” adds some tasty fiddle and a little more vocal twang.  The background vocals and the story all but scream, “We got both kinds of music here:  Country and Western!” and yes, I thought about Juice Newton again.  

    After bouncy country, James dials things back with the slow burner called “Ghost.”  This would be a great Eagles track had it showed up on “On The Border” back in the day.  The vocals and shimmery guitar supported by the full sounding drums would only need a little stacked harmony from Don Henley and the boys to take it into full Eagles mode.   This isn’t a criticism or a backhanded compliment:  I love her arrangement and only make the Eagles comparison as a nod to the quality of the songwriting.  Once the lead kicked in, it was 1974 all over again for me!

    The Chris Isaak guitar effect reappears at the start of “Sound of Your Wheels.”  This is another example of a great story song arranged and performed with perfection.  This is probably why I listened to it a half a dozen times before getting on to the last couple of tracks.  This is an album filled with one great track after another. “Fallen Snow” keeps things mellow and it is one of the tracks that really reminded me of Amy Rigby’s work.  The lilting vocal weaves in and out of the piano and strings with yet even more tasty drumming.  Gary had mentioned that he hears a lot of Emmylou Harris in James’ ‘breathiness’ and “Fallen Snow” is a pretty good example of what he meant.

    The LP winds up with rimshot solid drums and more tremolo & twang guitar onI Wish You Well.”  The last thought that popped into my head was, “I wonder if Lucinda Williams has a sister?” because if she did, and if her name is Peggy, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.   “I Wish You Well” is an accurate summation of my hopes for Peggy James and this record.  I can’t wait until the drop date so I can start sharing this on air. Kudos to the production and mastering team for turning Peggy James songs into such a great sounding record.  

Top Piece Video:  Peggy and band with their live take on In One Ear (and Out the Other)