The last year has seen an absolute windfall of cosmic and ambient country albums, pushing the pedal steel and whisper of strings to the forefront, but not letting go of any of the melancholy sweep of the open land or the haunted howl of the wind. One of those doing it best has been Bobby Lee, the Sheffield, UK guitarist whose album from last year is just getting a new life on LP and whose latest, released today, is already climbing the essential releases tally of 2021. Bobby’s already done me a service in sending over an excellent guest mixtape of long lost Xian country, but he’s gone above and beyond with a pick for the Hidden Gems series as well. Check out Bobby’s wander into the world of Mark James’ eponymous LP from 1973 and see how the record has affected his own works.
“In some ways this feels like an odd choice for a “hidden gems” feature,” admits Bobby. “James is a double Grammy Award winner, one of BMI’s songwriters of the century and has had his songs covered by hundreds of artists. Despite that, he’s hardly a household name and is not discussed in the same hushed, reverential tones used by rock critics for Jimmy Webb or David Ackles or Spooner Oldham. Besides a handful of singles, this is his only release as a performer. I’ve never read anything about the album, it’s not available on Spotify, deemed unworthy of mention on his wikipedia page, there’s only a few tracks up on Youtube (until now) and I’ve never heard anyone discuss it outside a few select record collecting circles. It should come as no surprise though that the writer of both ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘Always on my Mind’ should be capable of producing such a fine collection. If you’ve worn down the grooves of your Bobby Charles, Joe South and Jim Ford LPs, this should hit that same spot.”
“I normally can’t remember where I’ve picked up most of my records, lost in a fog of charity shops and bargain bins but I know exactly where this came from. I’d taken the train up to the otherworldly West Yorkshire model village of Saltaire for the record fair held at their working mens’ club (a sort of 1960s one story, tobacco and warm beer stained Union Hall, for those of you over the pond). I was about half way around my first tentative dig when I recognised one of the sellers; Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley. I was a big fan of his Early Morning Hush, Tea and Symphony, and Dream Babes compilations but didn’t know he was now an honorary tyke (his more recent English Weather and State of Our Union comps are also essential.) Any plans I had of spending my meagre vinyl budget with anyone else were immediately scuppered,” admits Lee.
“Instead of the usual overpriced and optimistically graded Bowies and Moody Blues, his crates were full of sunshine pop, weirdo country, unpronounceable Euro-post punk, autumnal prog-folk, past their prime solo LPs from washed up frontmen, slightlydelic girl group experiments and the sort of records that can still take you by surprise a decade or more into collecting. I plumped for a bunch of singles, chosen almost entirely on spec, the Buckingham Nicks LP (for a steal) and this album. I’m normally willing to chance any album with a sepia-toned matte-print sleeve, a suitably rustic looking dude in bell-bottoms on the front or a few names I know in the credits, and this ticked all those boxes. In fact, I did recognise the sleeve; I’d heard the song ‘Blue Water’ when it was posted in the Folk Funk & Trippy Troubadours facebook group, and I’d loved it — a soft focus country soul ballad with just the right balance of down home rootsiness and string drenched sophistication. I’ve come to accept “one-trackers”; albums I’ve picked up and kept on the strength of a single song, and was ready to file this away as such. This is not one of those records.”
“I’ve long gravitated towards those artists who swim in the muddy waters of southern music; artists like Leon Russell, Candi Staton, Link Wray and Bobbie Gentry, who mix the sass of Stax soul, the stoned looseness of hippie folk rock, and raw gospel intensity yet aren’t afraid of the fiddles and pedal steels of country music. LITA’s Country Funk series and the Country Got Soul compilations brought this music to a wider audience, and gave it a name, but it’s still a deep vein to mine with plenty more to give. This album is a perfect example of that. For all it’s apparent southern charm and air of Fame-studios funkiness though, it was recorded in New York with a crack team of East Coast Studio pros, including The Brecker Brothers, Al Gorgoni and Lou Marini Jr.”
“Opener ‘Whatever Mood You’re in’ sets the tone with its low slung syncopated groove, dobro lick and “Aww shucks, I’m just a simple music man” lyrical content. The fuzz-wah guitar keeps things chooglin’ and it’s mix of country, funky soul, SSW and swampy folk rock is exactly what I’m hoping to find when I pick up records like this. ‘Keep The Faith’’ is a candlelit head-nodder; the sort of steak dinner-n-velvet curtains makeout music Boz Scaggs has made a career out of. Tastefully clipped, phased keys, congas and occasional acoustic chords; it’s super smooth without ever losing its edge. Whether the lyrics are talking about the personal or political is unclear. The title could be the source of the much abused Northern Soul slogan, via Mel & Tim’s version. (Don’t quote me on that though. NS fans are as protective over “their” IP, history and iconography as the Hell’s Angels.) The duo’s killer gutbucket funk take on Yes We Can-Can is worth checking out too.”
“I’ve mentioned ‘Blue Water’ already but it’s worth noting that it features Roy Ayers, no less, with the shimmering, descending vibraphone figure that elevates the song to its blissful climax. It’s the sort of song that Bill Withers or Rod Stewart could have turned into a crossover hit. The fact that “Goodbye’s a Long, Long Time” is a co-write with Jerry Goffin and features Barry Mann on Electric Piano shows the circles that James was moving in. With its mixture of denimy folkiness and jazzy, r’n’b turnarounds, it’s reminiscent of Laura Nyro or Kenny Rankin, with even a few vague echoes of “I Feel The Earth Move”. Side one closer “Roller Coaster” has a flute-drenched funky Barrio vibe which could be Tower of Power or Show of Hands taking a stab at a swamp-rock story song.
“‘Flyin’ into Memphis’ opens side two and it’s as close to James’ familiar, more straight up country material as the album gets. It’s unfussy arrangement of dobro, piano and Jimmie Haskell style strings brings to mind Hoyt Axton or an horizontal Jerry Reed. ‘Brand New Woman’ is the least interesting track on the album. It’s a by-number early 70s love song, reminiscent of Delaney and Bonnie or Mac Davis in it’s soulful white guy feeling sentimental mushiness. Not bad, just unremarkable. ‘I’d Get Enthused’ on the other hand is an incredible folk-funk floor filler. A killer drum break and wah-wah blaxploitation style guitar lick strut around some mellow acoustic guitar chords and a minimalist, bluesy vocal. It’s the sort of thing that would be the highlight of any deep-funk compilation if it was some dusty, private press b-side.”
“‘Where Do We Go From Here’ is heavily indebted to Low Spark”/“Shoot Out era Traffic, with James’ voice picking up a few Stevie Winwood inflections. I’d have liked to have seen the band stretch it way past the four minute mark as it has the potential, with its congas, strings and spacey guitar, to get into a No Other style long form cosmic vamp. Closer ‘Don’t You Bury Me’ walks perilously close to Neil Diamond style schmaltziness at times, but I’m willing to give James a pass as the chorus is great and things once again take a turn towards the cosmos in the second half. It should go without saying, but there is nothing irritating or embarrassing on this album. No misjudged toe-dips into white boy reggae, hokey old-timey wackiness or contract filling 12-bar workouts. Some of my otherwise favourite records are blighted by these brief lapses of critical faculty which force you off the sofa to skip the offending track. A consummate song writer, James finds no room for throwaway studio in-jokes.”
“By 1973, Bell Records was perhaps not the best outlet for James, with its roster of mainstream pop, bubblegum glam and novelty songs. The album is an outlier in the label’s early-mid 70s output, harking back to their mid-late 60s heyday. James’ songs are much closer to the sophisticated storytelling and smoky arrangements of Bobbie Gentry or Tony Joe White’s mellower moments than the teen heartthrobs and jukebox fodder that the label were pushing around this time. James was clearly aiming for the hippie dollar, Rolling Stone readers, not just the country market he had cut his teeth in. Putting my affection for this record aside for a moment, James’ voice isn’t particularly distinctive and neither was his look. Perhaps by 1973, another soulful, swampy, SSW was becoming a hard sell; the album destined to languish in the cut out bins for eternity, along with countless other sensitive, hirsute young men and cheesecloth clad young women. With a different roll of the dice, any of the songs from this record could have become AM Radio staples.”
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