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Keith James Keith James
Album: Captured - The Best Of Keith James
Label: Hurdy Gurdy
Tracks: 33

The accompanying press release tells us "You will be forgiven for perhaps not having heard of Keith James before now. He is fiercely independent and therefore his career has for many years, existed in a parallel universe, almost under wraps, esoteric and secretive. He has enjoyed very little radio exposure, he doesn't fit into any musical category, he has never signed a recording or publishing deal".

Now, dammed with faint praise or a celebration of a musical free will? I rather suspect the latter as a cursory look over his long career will confirm.

Starting his trade as a soundman with a BBC Maida Vaile background, Keith also worked as a producer and although already an accomplished singer- songwriter in his own right, he came to the public's attention through his concerts celebrating the legendary Nick Drake, who died in 1974. This interpretive model continued with the presentation of the works of Leonard Cohen and, to a lesser extent, John Martyn. On from this, in recent years Keith has been taking the words of revered writers and poets, most notably Federico Garcia Lorca and Dylan Thomas and setting these studies to his own original music and arrangements.

A melding of the above and much more came to fruition in 2017's 'Tenderness Claws' where in a masterstroke of creativity, Keith teamed up with renowned producer and sound artist, Branwen Munn.

Now, in celebration of 40 years, 13 albums and upwards of 100 live shows annually, there is no shortage of material for a career retrospective and 'Captured' is a suitably expansive, 33 track double CD. With 13 albums to choose from some are obviously going to be more represented than others, but the chronological spread is good and I am very pleased that, with the exception of 1 track, 'Tenderness Claws' is here in its entirety. I also have a soft spot for 2002's 'Outsides' which served as my introduction to Keith and happily this contributes a robust 6 tracks.

As with any 'Best Of' collection, personal favourites are going to vary greatly from album to album and person to person, so I shall run through some of the tracks that particularly appeal to me.

After CD one opener, a marvellous version of 'White Room' from 'Tenderness Claws', the sublime take on Leonard Cohen's 'Anthem' follows. This is immediately recognisable as a Keith and Branwen arrangement and features a hypnotic guitar line, the sweetest of female harmony vocals and inventive sound textures that subtly fill out the song.

'The Unfaithful Wife' from 2007's 'Lorca' is beautifully percussive with a lovely European feel underpinned with the snap and drone of Rick Foot's bass and then just a few tracks on, is 'Rich man, Poor man' from the previously mentioned 'Outsides'. Pushed along by the tightest of shuffling drum parts it has a real groove in that languid 'Little Feat' type way and, importantly, is a great example of Keith's own song writing skills.

'Scatterland' is another Keith James original from the same album and could almost be a sister song to 'Rich man, Poor man' in tone and theme and then a track or two on, its bang up to date with 'Andalucia', yet another Keith original but from 2017's 'Tenderness Claws'. I remember at the time thinking how much the vocal reminded me of the late Richie Havens and in the best possible way, it still does.

CD two opener is Nick Drake's 'Fruit Tree' from 2003's 'The Songs of Nick Drake' and is simply a gorgeous piece of music followed by 'The Mask', adapted from the words of Federico Garcia Lorca and full of flamenco flavoured attack and drive.

A little later on and up pops 'There Must Be a God', a further Keith original from 'Outsides'. This one has a great rootsy; almost country vibe musically with some 'Knopfleresque' staccato electric guitar fills that build and build, rattling the song through in an earthy three minutes twenty seconds - brilliant stuff and it's good to hear Keith rocking out!

Suzanne Vega's 'The Queen and the Soldier' from 2009's 'Poet in New York' gets a stately, courtly, treatment with Rick Foot's bass again tellingly to the fore and just so things don't get too sweet, it is followed by Keith's slightly discordant, unsettling 'Lizard on the Wall', another pearl from 'Tenderness Claws'.

It's back to 'Poet in New York' and the words of Lorca for 'Sleepless City'. This is simply stunning with the richness of Keith's voice, his fluid guitar and the sparsely decorative piano that wanders in and out rather fetchingly.

Keith displays his singer-songwriter credentials for the last time on 'Only Occasionally' from 2015's 'Always'. This is a perfect showcase number for his voice with a timbre hinting at vintage John Martyn and then, perhaps appropriately, its back to 2007's 'Lorca' and 'Nocturne' to bring proceedings to an end, as the song fades on the most evocative pairing of Keith's guitar and Rick Foot's bass.

What stands out across all these songs is the remarkable attention to detail, endless creativity and consistency, all of which show no sign of being on the wane. In fact, 2017's 'Tenderness Claws' artistic liaison with Branwen Munn appears to have been something of a catalyst and Keith seems busier than ever with both live shows and future projects. Factor in his remarkably lyrical guitar, rich voice, interpretive and collaborative talents all married to an acutely melodic songwriter's eye, and his longevity is easy to understand.

'Captured' is a perfect whistle stop tour of highlights from a singular musical career, which in itself is an object lesson in what can be achieved with equal amounts of talent, passion and drive.

Paul Jackson