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Keith James Keith James
Album: Tenderness Claws
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 10

Keith James is one of those quiet institutions, fiercely independent and principled, that has been ploughing his own musical furrow in one form or another for the past 30 years or so. Keith learned his trade as a soundman with a BBC Maida Vaile grounding and worked as a record produced amongst other things before focussing on his own singer-songwriter gifts. However, Keith is better known for his concerts celebrating the music of Nick Drake and more latterly, Leonard Cohen and John Martyn. Perhaps a natural progression then was his setting of poetry to music, most notably with the works of Federico Garcia Lorca and Dylan Thomas.

Keith himself is a very fine acoustic guitarist blessed with a sweetly husky, expressive voice and is a hypnotic, compelling live performer. As a touchstone, his guitar playing has always put me in mind of Martin Simpson's effortlessly rhythmic style, notes tumbling and cascading over one another whilst his voice conjures up the buttery tones of the late Ritchie Havens circa his 'Wishing Well' era.

'Tenderness Claws' is a restless musical expansion of all the above, melding the words of poets such as Jack Kerouac, William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pete Brown and Keith's own work. For the first time I think, on this album Keith teams up with renowned producer and sound artist, Branwen Munn. She recorded and mixed the majority of the tracks here, with the exception of 'A process in the weather of the heart' recorded and mixed by Jake Hollifield and 'The Mask', recorded and mixed by Dan Lucas.

Keith sings, plays all guitars, piano, Wurlitzer, Melotron and percussion whilst Branwen adds piano, Wurlitzer, various keyboards, bass, percussion and is credited with all 'audio art and design'. Long time collaborator Rick Foot plays double bass on 'The Mask' and Sarah Vilensky adds her voice to 'Tyger Tyger' and 'Daydreams for Ginsberg'.

Opening track, William Blake's 'Tyger Tyger' enters atmospherically on a whirling, metallic, almost helicopter propeller effect before the advent of Keith's more familiar sounding guitar and vocal. The juxtaposition of Blake's omnipresent words and the musical delivery is compelling, a restless edginess and haunting, ethereal background vocals push the song through.

Next up is another piece embedded in the nation's collective unconscious, 'White Room'. Pete Brown, performance poet, lyricist and singer is best known for his collaborations with Cream's Jack Bruce, one of which is this track that proved to be a massive hit for the band. Treated piano chords and what sounds like synth strings usher this track in beautifully on an almost 'Trip Hop' vibe, something I never thought I would say about a Keith James number! His voice sits right on top of the mix and has a gravitas that brings a more reflective, questioning feel to the words than was evident on Creams bombastic, straight ahead rock delivery.

'Andalucia' by Frederick Garcia Lorca rests on a lovely, flamenco style track with a percussive back beat driving the music under a spacey, languid vocal, while Dylan Thomas's 'A process in the weather of the heart' is a musically darker, more subtly intimate affair.

'Decorated cardboard human shapes' is the first Keith James poem here and is given a beautifully creative musical treatment, again with Keith's trademark guitar and vocal but here sitting astride a heavily dance and trance influenced rhythm track that in all seriousness wouldn't be out of place sampled on a Club Ibiza techno album - glorious stuff!

And so it goes for the rest of the album, full of twists and surprises with words that when read in the cold print of the CD booklet look like they could never be released by music, but always are.

Other stand outs for me were 'Daydreams for Ginsberg' by Jack Kerouac which features Keith's best vocal I think and is closest to Nick Drake territory in feel, and the last two tracks, 'Lizard on the wall' and 'A third place..', both poems by Keith.

Each of these songs has a starker, more straightforwardly acoustic dynamic and is very strong melodically. 'A third place..' is probably my favourite song on the album with its slightly discordant, almost Richard Thompson textured guitar and perhaps least ambiguous set of words, which paint a picture of absence and loss, 'A third place at the table. Set for no one. A third place at the table. For last year's guest'.

Of course, as a CD, at the end of the day what is being judged here is the finished musical product as I'm pretty sure William Blake or Dylan Thomas are not in need another critique!

Luckily, as a collection of songs this album works magnificently. The quality of the recording and endlessly creative arrangements from Branwen Munn brings a new life and energy to Keith James's own considerable musical attributes. Each song really is something of a sonic landscape and between them, they have produced a real treasure trove of delights.

Paul Jackson