Tenderness Claws reviews
KEITH JAMES – Tenderness Claws
Album review. Folking.com June 2017
On his web site, Keith James describes his career as esoteric and secretive, but he has actually attracted a good deal of respect for his sensitive interpretations of the songs of Nick Drake, John Martyn and Leonard Cohen, and his musical settings of his own poetry and that of well-loved writers like Lorca and Dylan Thomas. His new CD, Tenderness Claws, is almost entirely focused on settings of poetry: it’s the first time I’ve actually heard his work, but it’s finely crafted and played, exquisitely produced (mostly by Branwen Munn) and engineered, and repays close attention. There can be a degree of implicit tension between the intentions of the poet and the composer when a poem is set to music. Housman took exception to the omission by Vaughan Williams of two of the verses from Is My Team Ploughing? Vaughan Williams responded that ‘the composer has a perfect right artistically to set any portion of a poem he chooses provided he does not actually alter the sense.’ (And made it clear that there were lines in the missing verses that he felt were best forgotten.)
Phil Ochs, though probably mostly remembered nowadays as a ‘protest’ singer, also composed several excellent settings to poems by Poe, Noyes and others. In his liner notes to I Ain’t Marching Any More he offered – if my memory doesn’t fail me – a sort of apology to John Jerome Rooney for his substantial changes to The Men Behind The Guns. (We’ll never know what Rooney would have thought about it. Keith James clearly believes it appropriate that what Ochs called ‘the discipline of music’ should sometimes modify and shed a different light on an existing poem as it develops into a song. And the success of the settings here entirely justifies that belief.
Here’s the track-by- track summary:
1. ‘Tyger Tyger’ is Keith’s setting of William Blake’s poem. This is the oldest poem set here, and the form is unequivocally strophic, by contrast with the freeform nature of the work of the ‘beat’ poets also represented here. However, it could be said that Blake’s writing was often a long way ahead of its time, and the arrangement is unequivocally modern, and in no way clashes with the more recent verse here. I particularly like Sarah Vilensky’s vocal work here.
2. Although the insert and booklet state ‘All music composed by Keith James’, ‘White Room’ is actually the melody that Jack Bruce put to Pete Brown’s words on Cream’s Wheels Of Fire Though I remember the original with nostalgia, Keith’s is really rather a good version, benefiting from significantly more light and shade. The arrangement accentuates the dislocated tone of the lyric better than the in-yer- face wah-wah of Cream’s version – perhaps we’re just too accustomed now to the sound of frequency filtering to remember its impact in the 1960s – and Keith’s understated vocal compares well to Bruce’s.
3. ‘Andalucia’ is based on a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca with which I’m not familiar. It combines a rhythmic arrangement that recalls flamenco, though the percussion and some of the changes hint at Latin America. Keith’s vocal delivery, though, is all his own.
4. ‘A Process in the Weather of the Heart’ slightly rearranges the poem by Dylan Thomas, but still feels through-composed. I don’t know what Dylan would have thought, but it works for me.
5. ‘Decorated Cardboard Human Shapes’ sets one of Keith’s own poems, combining a wide range of haunting aural effects with a compulsive percussion track.
6. ‘Daydreams for Ginsberg’ is set to an abbreviated version of Jack Kerouac’s poem. It works very well.
7. ‘The Mask’ is based on Lorca’s Danza De La Muerte (Dance of Death). This time the poem, though significantly shortened, is left in Spanish, apart from the couplet that begins and ends this setting. As with ‘Andalucia’, the guitar is steeped in flamenco feel, but Rick Foot’s bowed double bass adds quite a different dimension. Beautiful. 8. ‘Blue Angel’ sets a poem by Allen Ginsberg to guitar arpeggios that give the setting a slightly folk-y feel.
9. ‘Lizard on the Wall’ is a guitar-driven setting of Keith’s own slightly surreal words, punctuated by gentle flamenco-tinged clapping. I like it a lot.
10. ‘A Third Place…’ sets another of Keith’s own poems, hinting at a tragic backstory. In some way I can’t quite define, it makes me think of Brel.
Keith’s voice has a fragility that might not be to everyone’s taste, but is entirely suited to the material here, and I can see (or hear) why it would be suited to the songs of Nick Drake, for instance. But then his settings here of his own poems make for compositions that stand very well on their own, even in the company of the other writers represented here. Highly recommended.
R2 Magazine ****
Keith James is much travelled, well read; an erudite man who is probably the least egocentric songwriter I know. He is equally happy covering the works of Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and John Martyn and setting the work of his favourite poets to music.
He admits that he doesn’t get to tour his own songs much now but there are three of them here on Tenderness Claws.
The Album centres on the work of the beat poets, beginning with ‘Tyger Tyger’, now you might
argue that William Blake wasn’t a beat, but he certainly was on something and the track makes an
excellent opener. ‘White Room’ is a real revelation. Keith uses Jack Bruce’s melody, having first
dismantled it and re-built it in a new form. Pete Brown’s words never sounded so good. Next, Keith
turns to Federico Garcia Lorca as one does to an old friend while Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg
each provide a lyric. There are two songs here that we have heard before: Dylan Thomas’ ‘A Process
in the Weather of the Heart’ and Lorca’s ‘The Mask’ which originally appeared on Poet in New York.
Keith is supported by Branwen Munn, arranger, musician and engineer, and between them, they
have produced a remarkable array of sounds to accompany remarkable words.
Keith's new album, Tenderness Claws is wonderful. It is filled with a brilliant tapestry's of sounds and imagery, with the arrangements taking the listener on journeys to far off places. The performances and production are of the highest quality, making this album a must for anyone who loves story telling in song form, accompanied with creative and masterful acoustic guitar playing.
Fantastic evening..... thank you...... been listening this morning ... loving your composition of white room. You have such a soothing voice. Can't wait to see you again in the autumn!
And what you are doing for the refugees is great...... only 19 more to go! You'll do it.....
Blue Angel!! Stunning and beautiful
Enthusiastic of Hampshire
Keith James is much travelled, well read; an erudite man who is probably the least egocentric songwriter I know.
He has used Jack Bruce’s melody, having first dismantled it and rebuilt it in a new form. Pete Brown’s words have never sounded so good.
This is a remarkable array of sounds to accompany remarkable words.
Dai Jeffries. R2 Magazine
'Each song on Tenderness Claws is a little sonic landscape, adding up to a 5 star album by anyone’s standards' –
Paul Jackson/ Fatea Magazine
Known for his meticulous dissection of Nick Drake's idiosyncratic guitar
techniques, which he handles with surgical precision, Keith James takes a
series of poems written by some of our most noted poets and tenderly
delivers each one wrapped in melodies all his own with arrangements
courtesy of producer Branwen Munn. The visionary poet William Blake sits
comfortably beside lyricist Pete Brown, who's White Room, which became
one of Cream's biggest hits of the late 1960s, is featured here with the same
melody, albeit with an entirely different approach. Atmospheric in places and
aided by one or two almost subliminal sampled effects, the collection includes
both Dylan Thomas (A Process in the Weather of the Heart) and Federico
Garcia Lorca (Andalucia), who rub shoulders quite effectively and in the
hands of Keith James, become one. Twentieth century poetry is further
explored with the inclusion of the Beats, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac
occupying the same space once again, with Daydreams for Ginsberg being
graciously rewarded with a rather dreamy Drake-like accompaniment. There's
always a sense of 'now which Nick Drake song is this guitar passage
referencing?' James adds three songs of his own, each of which read very
much like poetry on the page, yet they are also treated to some fine
arrangements, lifting each of them to another level. My only criticism is that
Keith's highly emotive voice, although maybe emotive in a slightly theatrical
manner reminiscent of Shawn Phillips, does tend to become slightly one
dimensional towards the end, although having said that, there are some
satisfying moments when further embellished with Sarah Vilensky's Eastern
flavoured vocal contributions.
FATEA June 2017
Album: Tenderness Claws
Label: Self Released
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.