critic’s pick 266: jim james, ‘regions of light and sound of god’

There are instances on Regions of Light and Sound of God, the new and profoundly contemplate solo album from Louisvillian Jim James, when one can’t help but think of Van Morrison.

It’s not a matter of style or sound, really. Yet within in the grooves sits a mix of yearning, reflection and spiritual release that could have been plucked right out of Morrison’s mighty back catalogue. It’s just that in lieu of the latter’s Celtic fancy, Regions of Light favors a predominantly one-man-band sound that employs ambient orchestration, trip-hop beats and vocals that shift from plaintive contentment to otherworldly wonder.

In other words, this is music that, like Morrison’s greatest songs, reaches for the heavens, knowing all too well how unobtainable they can be.

“Lost in the world, it seemed,” James sings in Know Til Now. “Caught. At a loss for words. I didn’t know ‘til now.” Sung essentially as an unapologetic confession (“How could I have known how sweet life could be?”), the tune’s atmospheric epiphany is colored by twilight hued keyboards, mantra-like beats and a vocal falsetto that sounds stuck in the stratosphere with all intentions of moving upward. It is equal parts funk parade (as shown by an interlude of fuzzy synth beats), space age surf (think the Beach Boys at their most melancholic with a Radiohead rewiring) and soul affirmation (the farthest reaches of James’ singing bring to mind – no joke – Marvin Gaye).

You could play spot-the-influence all day long on Regions of Light. Actress, which is probably the closest the album veers to James’ music with My Morning Jacket, recalls John Lennon, especially in the song’s aggressive chorus, while Dear One is one of many bits of homemade spiritual electronica that would be at home on any number of Todd Rundgren albums.

James doesn’t tackle everything himself on Regions of Light. Longtime friend Dave Givan play drums while a pair of prized Lexingtonians – Emily Hagihara and Ben Sollee, add percussion and strings, respectively. But James unquestionably dominates with music that dances between retro and futuristic and full circle lyrics that search for change while celebrating the here and now.

No wonder the album’s 38 minute running time skips by in an instant. But then, the speed of life (and, perhaps, afterlife) is part of what makes Regions of Light so fascinating, as shown by one of its most absorbing songs, a lullaby of change and return titled Of the Mother Again.

“Nothing ever stays the same way for long,” James sings. “Good or bad, short and sweet, skip a beat, close your eyes and it’s gone.”

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