Thursday, December 29, 2022

James Houlahan: “Beyond The Borders” (2022) CD Review

James Houlahan continues to prove himself to be one of the country’s best songwriters. His new album, Beyond The Borders, features mostly original material, with just a couple of covers. As on his last few albums, he is joined by the talented Fernando Perdomo on bass, keyboards and vocals; Danny Frankel on drums and percussion; and Esther Houlahan on vocals (she was previously credited as Esther Clark, but the two married last year). And as on James Houlahan’s 2020 release Ordinary Eye, the incomparable Scarlet Rivera joins him again on violin. Also performing on these tracks are Joel Martin on pedal steel, Scott Doherty on piano and keyboards, and Leeann Skoda on vocals. The album was produced by Fernando Perdomo and James Houlahan.

The opening track, “Far From Me,” begins with the sound of water, fitting with the album’s cover photo (taken by Esther Houlahan, by the way). I’m generally not a fan of water and rain sounds on songs, but it works with a recurring theme of this album. And besides, this song itself is excellent. James Houlahan right away shows what a great knack he has for crafting meaningful lyrics. These are the song’s first lines: “All my castles have turned to rubble/All my armor has turned to rust/I’ve been hustled down a lonely road/Of those gone too soon/But there’s a light/Far from me.” Yeah, those lines speak strongly to me, of being stripped of defenses, and left open to what might happen next. The song has the feel of coming from a friend who is perhaps troubled but is trying to sooth your own worried soul. It contains some nice backing vocal work too, adding to the sweet and friendly tone. Then “Back To The Start” comes on with more energy, featuring a steady beat prominent in the mix. This too has strong opening lines: “I need a reason/For the bad shape that I’m in.” Ah, a reason isn’t too hard to find these days. This one has a country rock vibe, and features some really good work on pedal steel. “I’ll take this battered heart/I’m going back to the start.”

The music turns bluesy with “Lonesome Love,” that cool guitar work announcing the song’s intentions at the start. The violin then is a surprising and wonderful addition, and of course Scarlet Rivera delivers some phenomenal work. This song too has some good opening lines. While a lot of blues songs begin with the singer saying he woke up this morning, this one finds James Houlahan singing “I’ve been feeling so tired/But my head won’t let me sleep.” I know most of us have been in touch with that feeling in the last several years, as anxiety has been running high and running deep. Then “Merge” begins like a mellow 1970s soft rock gem, with some smooth backing vocal work. This song has such a sweet and pleasant vibe. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “There’s a song we’re singing/Like the river’s flowing/Like the grass is growing/Like the wind is blowing.” This track features a good bass line and some nice work on electric guitar. And when James Houlahan sings of a joyful dance, I can almost see it taking place in a field far from all troubles, even if one created just by desire within the middle of a busy city.

“Wave On Wave” creates a gentle, soothing atmosphere that seems to come out of the darkness, greeting the dawn alone. It’s a different world, isn’t it, when everyone else is still asleep? It sometimes feels like we too are still within a dream. Here the music does a great job of telling us things before the lyrics do. We get a strong sense of mood and place before the first line, “Early morning ocean dreaming.” And check out these lines: “On the shoreline of this dark mood/I feel a pulsing of desire for/Wave on wave.” The energy then builds, in the vocals and in the guitar work. That’s followed by “Through The Water,” which has something of a Neil Young vibe as it starts. This one shifts perspectives, focusing on the story of a family. “The daughter’s hearing voices/Behind a papered wall/With a father who conspires/To put his art above it all/But the guilt he feels is burning/A hole down deep inside/As madness comes upon them all/Like a cruel and rising tide.” Then “Ballad Of The Lazy Preacher” has a folk sound, with some nice work on acoustic guitar. This track has one of my favorite vocal performances of the album. Something about the honesty is his voice brings me close to tears. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Everywhere I go/People want to know/What they can’t deny/Will it sneak up from behind/And set them on a path/Right into a pit of fire.” And I love that lonesome harmonica that briefly rises in the distance.

“The Deep End” has a delicious, raw energy right from its start. This one also finds him in the water, a recurring element or image in this album’s material, but this time he is in need of help: “Looks like I’m waving/But I’m really drowning/Water, water/Everything around me.” And check out that powerful work on violin. Fantastic! That is followed by “Powderfinger,” one of only two covers, this one written by Neil Young and included on the 1979 Neil Young & Crazy Horse LP Rust Never Sleeps. This track contains some good work on guitar, particularly during that instrumental section in the middle. And then we get the album’s other cover, “O What Is That Sound,” its lyrics coming from a W.H. Auden poem. This track has a strong Bob Dylan vibe, sounding like it would fit well on Desire. And that makes some sense, as Scarlet Rivera provides a good deal of that record’s power and appeal. And here she delivers some outstanding work, helping to make this track one of the disc’s highlights. This track also features a passionate, strong vocal performance. By the way, while the lyrics are by W.H. Auden, the music is by James Houlahan, and he’s created a wonderfully frightening and tense atmosphere.

I love the deliciously sad sound of the pedal steel at the beginning of “And The Horse Began To Dance.” The verses of this song are delivered almost as spoken word, emphasizing the sense of story, the sense of history in this song. That’s followed by “Bloom,” which features some pretty work on violin. This is yet another song whose lyrics grabbed me right away. Here are its opening lines: “Go now, ease your spirit/Into that long dark void/May your truth and beauty/Bloom from what’s destroyed,” lyrics that are both sad and optimistic, which is the overriding feeling these days. This is a beautiful song. The album then concludes with “You Are Free.” There is a strange, unexpected laughter at the beginning of this track. That and its strong rhythm set this song apart immediately. And speaking of optimism and looking ahead, check out these lines: “Such a good day I haven’t had in years/Where a sun ray suddenly appears/Make the light stay, drying up my tears/There’s a new way of getting past these fears.” And the ability is squarely on our own shoulders. It’s an empowering, uplifting song, and it features some good work on guitar and keys.

CD Track List

  1. Far From Me
  2. Back To The Start
  3. Lonesome Love
  4. Merge
  5. Wave On Wave
  6. Through The Water
  7. Ballad Of The Lazy Preacher
  8. The Deep End
  9. Powderfinger
  10. O What Is That Sound
  11. And The Horse Began To Dance
  12. Bloom
  13. You Are Free

Beyond The Borders was released on November 18, 2022.

No comments:

Post a Comment