Influenced by the likes of Son House, Robert Johnson and Ray Charles among others, and steeped in years of singing Gospel in the local church, Shawn’s music has “aged” beautifully and acquired a soulful quality that conveys many emotions at once. His debut album Shadows is a brilliant piece of work if ever I’ve seen any. His lyrics are honest, well-written and have a significant connection to the kind of music he makes. Perhaps what makes him stand out among others is his ability to use his voice as the “do-all-and-be-all” of the compositions. There is hardly any percussion; none, I would say. An acoustic guitar, and sometimes a violin and a tambourine, is all that is used in way of accompaniments.
“Shadows” opens with the lead track “The Wanderer”. It is an upbeat track in the manner of old-timey Gospel Blues, but not obsolete. I think this is the track where Shawn makes his personal statement as an artist – a kind of “Hello, I’m ____” tag that tells you who this man is, and what he thinks he is.
It is followed by “The Shadow”, an out and out Chicago Blues track. Great harmonica riffs. But the track I loved most was “Midnight Dove”. The imagery of the lyrics coupled with the flow of the melody is quite fantastic. The strains of violin build a melancholy atmosphere, while the lyrics talk of hope. The song starts on a subdued note but crescendos into a controlled chorus, thus keeping true to the allegory of breaking through the barriers of hopelessness to find hope again. This could very well be a lullaby! (Check out Shawn’s website for the story behind the song).
What I like about this album is that the melody isn’t forced; it follows a natural stream of progression, which makes it very soothing and expressive. Not once do you feel like a song could have ended differently, or a refrain could have been reworked. Of his inspiration he says, "Growing up in church also had a huge impact on my musical ability and tastes as well. Seeing how people could be emotionally moved by music opened my eyes to the ability to control emotions through music." Adopting a very personal approach to playing live shows is also an integral part of the 'Shawn James musical experience'. And what might that be? "I moved to Fayetteville(with my beautiful wife) in January of this year and have made playing music my only job," he says. "It's going great because I've figured out how to make it work. It's not just through CD sales and playing shows, but also busking in the streets and playing farmer's markets and such. I like to bring people not only a show that's setup but also a raw version of myself and my music that a lot of today's musicians just don't do. Fayetteville has been extremely supportive of me and I love it here."
Check out the videos for "Midnight Dove" and "The Shadow" here:
My only grouse is that the production values in some songs are a wee bit sketchier than I’d have liked. The vocal and instrumental tracks don’t seem to have mixed properly. But other than that, this is an excellent work of art and you should definitely keep in your Blues collection.