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Review: Casey James' debut CD fails to showcase his true talent

Posted 11:29am on Wednesday, Mar. 21, 2012

Go back and watch Casey James's American Idol performance of Jealous Guy one more time.

In two and a half minutes, with little more than an acoustic guitar, a cello and his voice, James wrings tremendous pathos from a song that is not his own. He recasts John Lennon's plea to Yoko Ono as a smoldering, slightly bluesy and slightly countrified ballad, displaying his vocal grit and his tasteful guitar work. It's passionate without being overwrought -- an all-too-common malady on Idol -- and illustrates James's intuitive understanding of how to sell soulfulness without resorting to slick pandering.

Cue up James's long-awaited, self-titled major label debut, however, and prepare to be crushed. Not because he's crafted 11 dynamite songs that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, but rather, his innate ability as a guitarist and a performer have been buried beneath shiny, slick production, glib lyrics and a homogenous feel afflicting much of modern Nashville's output.

It's too much to call it a disappointment, but after two years of work, one would hope for something with more teeth than this.

Casey James does have flashes of the Cool native's eclectic musical tastes, and his formidable guitar skills (lead single Let's Don't Call It a Night is plenty scorching and Drive, in particular, lets James cut loose), but far too often, the songs do the musician a disservice. Whether it's a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, or others advising James to take a safe, middle-of-the-road approach, Casey James makes it difficult to reconcile the man who sang Jealous Guy, the man who spent more than two hours on Billy Bob's Texas's stage last summer, and the polished product put before us here.

I believe him when he says that he's influenced by an array of genres, from outlaw country to blues, but I don't get that sense listening to glossy tracks like Crying on a Suitcase or Miss Your Fire. Instead, visions of Brad Paisley and Keith Urban materialize; each is a similarly gifted guitarist who has been ghettoized as a pretty face, only suited for singing tunes to make the ladies go weak in the knees.

Whomever is suggesting James go down that path is missing a big opportunity: James has lived a life, enduring injury and late nights in dimly-lighted dives. It's an existence worthy of excavation, and certainly far more intriguing than yet another sweetly sung, shallowly conceived ballad.

And let's be clear: James co-wrote nine of the 11 tracks here, so at least some of the compositional blame rests at his feet. But again, is this truly the album Casey James wanted to make? Is this album the most true, accurate reflection of his musical tastes and the direction he desires to go? If it is, then perhaps I've misjudged the man from Cool, who made John Lennon's Jealous Guy so mesmerizing.

I do believe that Casey James is a talented product of the ever-fertile Texas music scene, but I don't think Casey James showcases that skill as much as it could. If Casey James proves to be a commercial success, perhaps he'll get another chance -- and, hopefully, more autonomy -- to make the record I sense still lurks inside him, unrealized.

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