James House - Broken Glass Twisted Steel
The fact that James House isn’t a major star is one of the biggest injustices in country music today. He won much acclaim for his 1989 self-titled debut country album, drawing praise for his sturdy but graceful tunes, however, he failed to connect with American country radio or record buyers. Sadly the same fate befell HARD TIMES FOR AN HONEST MAN, his equally impressive second album. A change of record labels saw him land on Epic in 1994 with DAYS GONE BY and a top ten single with This Is Me Missing You. A second Epic album was never released and James House fell back on his songwriting skills. He wrote or co-wrote such memorable 1990s hits as Ain’t That Lonely Yet (Dwight Yoakam), In A Week Or Two (Diamond Rio) and Broken Wing (Martina McBride). Though I have continued to play his three albums over the past 20 years or so, I had become resigned to the fact that there was unlikely to be anymore James House recordings for me to enjoy. Then out of the blue came this new album and it seems that I have to reluctantly thank the British line-dance fraternity. As many probably know, Alan Cackett and line-dancing don’t mix. As I sat listening to this superb album and refreshed my taste buds with James’ earlier albums, I wondered how the dancers managed to latch on to this music.
James House is a superb songwriter and has one of the most distinctive voices to grace country music over the past 30-odd years. A traditional stylist with passion and personality, he balances melodic immediacy and lyrics that look, often unblinkingly, at the perils, delights and complexities of intimacy and romance. He writes and sings with a certain masculine fragility and gets a downright human sound out of his musical arrangements. This ‘comeback’ album is a landmark for James House, balancing his new songs’ unfiltered emotional honesty with the effortless melodic craft that’s always been a hallmark of his work. By embodying the qualities that have always been at the heart of his work, while introducing some vital new elements to the mix, he demonstrates that, after a lifetime of music-making, James House’s flame still burns as brightly as ever.
Opening track, Train Wreck, is gently percussive with a luxurious strumming guitar; his echoing vocals and a haunting melody will be with you long after its swirling harmonies fade. The album’s title comes from this superbly written song. Here’s To You is classic country, from the heartbreaking lyrics to the near-perfect arrangement of pedal steel, fiddle, tinkling piano and sweet, slightly sad guitar. For the first time James has recorded his own versions of three of the biggest hits that he penned for others. Almost effortlessly he makes you forget forever those well-known hit versions. He offers an angst-ridden vocal to Ain’t That Lonely Yet that brings a whole new depth to the song—I can picture the line-dancers confused faces when this one starts up as they all look down at their feet, willing them to come up with some suitable footwork to match the downbeat mood of this stunning song. I always quite liked Diamond Rio’s In A Week or Two, but I’m not sure I’d want to hear it again as the writer completely re-invents his own song to give it an emotional depth that I’d never heard before. Then we come to Broken Wing, a dramatic masterpiece in the hands of Martina McBride, but just as powerful in this James House version. That’s followed by the gentler A Little Time With You, a vibrantly jangly country number that is hypnotically appealing. For me, the killer track is Over Here Tonight, a song that in little more than a couple of minutes paints a portrait of the fall-out following a break-up—a quintessential country tear-jerker with a killer lyric. Encompassing solitary late-night heartbreak, sweeping orchestral drama and redemptive uplift this is a record with teeth. It holds on desperately in spite of it all, relentless in both angst and tenderness
This whole album spotlights what James House does best, writing and recording thoughtful narratives that are as affecting as they are engaging. The songs display great insight and perspective. There is a wisdom and yearning in these creations that makes the listening experience both challenging and uplifting in equal measure. Don’t let the fact that James House’ career has been resurrected by line-dancers put you off his music. This is Americana country music of the very highest quality and I urge you to put all prejudices to one side and listen to this superb music with a completely open mind. I swear that you will not be disappointed.