Review: A Few Small Grains: 1981-2006
Underrated singer-songwriter spins poignant melodies performed with an effortlessly graceful blend of acoustic and electric instruments
**** Four Stars
In many respects Keith James is a well-kept secret on the British singer-songwriter scene, though, over the past few years he has been building a healthy following through his highly successful Songs of Nick Drake tours. The Salisbury-born performer started his music career in the mid-1970s and began making something of an impact during the 1980s when he released four vinyl LPs and was a regular on BBC Radio 2. During the 1990s he was side-tracked somewhat, spending more time as a producer for others than as an artist in his own right. Now he is back in the driving seat and taking his music out to the general public, and to satisfy the new fans he has gathered, he has compiled this 26-track double-CD set. It is highly comprehensive and proves to be a fairly honest retrospect of Keith’s recording career.
Prototypical singer-songwriters of his calibre don’t fade away, they just get wiser. The maturity is all there to hear as he shifts effortlessly from such early gems as 1979’s Life in a Western World through 1983’s As Love Begins to last year’s A Few Small Grains. James writes songs with imaginative and evocative lyrics as he moves from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, singing dark and broody songs about mankind. A Song For Those Who Live in Fright, a thought-provoking song about modern times, is even more relevant today than it was when written more than a dozen years ago. The Water and the Rain features intricate acoustic guitar with a simple production style and a modern folk flavour. There’s a fresh-sounding change of pace on Find My Own Way Home, its momentum coming from the insistent rhythm, staccato horns, strident electric guitar and the Hammond. Throughout the storytelling lyrics provide one vivid scenario after the next as Keith’s vocals lend warm human depth. But most of the time, as on such lyrical gems as Rich Man Poor Man, One Small Voice and Circle Song, so casual and lazy is his vocal style that he barely catches up with the music.
There are several tracks here that are previously unreleased such as Sold On London and As Love Begins, which were recorded for the BBC and broadcast in the early 1980s. I’m Alive is a lost recording from 1990, whilst there are alternate versions of five songs from Keith’s OUTSIDES album. There’s also a couple of cover songs: Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock and inevitably a Nick Drake fave—At The Chime of a City Clock. Listening to some of the early recordings now, the songs do lack a certain projection, but their quality and stature remains undiminished even after all these years, and while much of the material is not really in vogue with today’s style, it should be well-received by his fans. Indispensable.
Review by Alan Cackett, Maverick Magazine October 2006
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