“More Strange News” Is Strange But Special — One of the Best of 2014

6 Mar

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Oddball, yet astonishingly refreshing. That may well sum up the latest CD from James Wallace and the Naked Light. More Strange News from Another Star falls somewhere between indie folk and acoustic pop. But the word “Strange” in the album title is telling— this is not your father’s folk music.

The storytelling flavor is there. So are many of the instruments that typify folk or even Americana: banjo, acoustic guitar, fiddle, and even the harmonies used in the backup vocals. That would not be unexpected for a musician from Nashville, Tennessee. But the band also liberally employs brass, glockenspiel, other-worldly synthesizer squiggles, and song constructions that veer toward jazz, blues or gospel — in addition to folk or pop.

The result is a quirky, sometimes experimental, always satisfying set of songs that at a short 36 minutes leaves me wanting more. Much more.

Wallace plays with his voice in an interesting manner on some of his songs, using a slightly nasally, high pitch that at first might sound a little strange — there’s that word again. But according to Wallace, this helps him get into character more effectively. This is true on “Colored Lights,” a really fun syncopated number — replete with handclaps, cowbell, and a nice use of brass. The catchy melody makes it perfect for the first single release from the album.

“Worse Things Have Happened” starts a cappella and then transitions into a nice indie folk-pop song backed by fingerpicked guitar, with drums and brass added as the song progresses. The female vocals in Chinese 30 seconds into the song — at the junction between the a cappella opening and the main body — hint at the evolution of this album project.

Wallace originally started it for a record label in China that was releasing monthly cassette tapes, and wanted to include Wallace’s band in the series. But by the time Wallace had completed the album, the Chinese label was defunct, and it took two years before Dialog Records picked it up, so the album could be widely released.

“To the River” is one of the more conventional songs on the CD, a sweet, simple, intimate love ballad with softly spoken/sung vocals over delicate fingerpicked guitar. As usual, Wallace’s writing is exceptional. “Tara took my hand/She said we’re going to the river/So I followed her like a new toy/Pulled down the road by a string.” There’s a fascinating video of this track as well.

“The Wire (Reprise)/Kicked Down the Road” finds Wallace incorporating a gospel flavor into his music. It’s starts as a strummy sing-along and builds throughout. Once again, the lyrics are superb. “If you force me into a fight, I’ll come at you like the sunlight hits the water/I won’t fight forever, but I’ll fight with my life.”

The closing number, “Chopping Block,” is a slow country-folk shuffle about a patient in a hospital that contemplates the inevitability of death in a light-hearted, optimistic way.

As you may be able to tell, this is one of my favorite albums so far of 2014. The CD appears to have originally been released in April 2013 — there was some vinyl available as well — but we at KZSU, Stanford University’s radio station, didn’t receive it until this year. The album’s not easy to find.

One place for sure that you can buy it is at Bandcamp.com. I will feature the album on my show on Friday March 7th at 9 a.m. Pacific on KZSU. Find more information about the band on their Facebook page.

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