Review: Graeme James – The Long Way Home

Graeme James

Originally published: 

Over the last few days of darkness I’ve been listening to expat Kiwi singer-songwriter Graeme James’ uplifting new album, seeking some kind of reassurance in humanity. If music is a healer, then I may have found some remedies here. These songs have a degree of spiritual elevation about them. Given recent events, I have little tolerance for cynical or abrasive, angry music. These songs are about community and celebration. Tracks like Here and Now (revived from an earlier release), wrap you up like the arms of good friends, joyfully dancing together in the middle of a pub room floor.

James’ take on ‘nu-folk’ mixes familiar elements found with Richard Thompson and Avalanche City, with older traditions found in sea shanties and gold miners’ ditties. I love the way he melds mandolin, ukulele and violin in with glowing, voluptuous guitars. His songs are cool, friendly, chirpy foot-tapping. Just the tonic for these times. Not all of it is about dancing though. There is a moment or two of deeper intimacy with the Reverie, recorded with close mics to enhance the chiming guitars and squeaks of fingers on the fret board. It’s laden with an ethereal, emotive qualities and elements of that ‘disorienting feeling’ that we experience waking up from a strange dream and trying to readjust to reality.

These are story tellers’ songs and they pay tribute to that tradition. An early favourite of mine is Way Up High which reminded me of Billy Bragg’s Mermaid Avenue project, interpreting unpublished Woody Guthrie songs. The dead giveaway comes with the refrain: “trouble will not find me way up high”, which repeats like a 1930’s Dust-bowl-era worker shouting defiantly into the oncoming winds. That’s enhanced by a wonderful swirling fiddle that adds a spot of barn dance mayhem to the mood.

While most of the music is performed on stringed instruments not all of this material is made ‘traditionally’. With the arrangements, production, echo effects, beat boxing, loops and digital ‘atmospheres’ for pieces like Western Lakes. It was this tune, in particular that I felt the most relaxing – perfect with a nice late night whiskey. I loved the space created, mirrored by exquisitely apt lines such as: “Sometimes our words are not enough, there’s silence to observe”

Humming along with the full force of Mr Cash is Night Train.  It is the perfect vehicle to show off the smoke-honey timbre of his vocals. There’s a little bit of classic and a little bit of contemporary here. Styles vary, and pinning him down is not easy. To Be Found By Love, for example, is more like an Irish pub reel, featuring some very spritely Celtic fiddle and infectious percussion provided by some hand claps that just make you want to join in, too. One or two numbers have messages, like the very catchy song The Difference but mostly he avoids getting to preachy. The album closes with the scratchy By and By, replaying the tones of an old wind up 78rpm record and perhaps a nod to the past.

Careful phrasings, crafted production, subtle and nuanced recordings with the occasional foot stomper to clap along to, this is an album to return to again and again. Each listen is more satisfying than the last. The Long Way Home builds on all the strength of his previous album, News From Nowhere (a finalist in the folk category of 2017 New Zealand Music Awards) and takes it further. Uplifting, energetic and a music to be shared, this is definitely a journey worth taking.

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