To describe James Wallace as a Nashville-based songwriter and bandleader isn’t incorrect, but requires several asterisks. His latest release, More Strange News From Another Star, was born in the winter of 2009, when Wallace toured China with Abigail Washburn’s band, and was approached by Beijing indie label Tag Team about featuring his left-field folk-pop in their upcoming summer cassette series. Energized, Wallace hunkered down in a Virginia studio with friend Matthew E. White (whom you might recognize from his own solo work, or his contributions to Mountain Goats’ Transcendental Youth) in the producer’s chair, and completed the record in a marathon 10-day session the following April — only to find that the label had closed its doors.
Undaunted, Wallace decided to manufacture his own cassettes, which he’s continued to promote through nonstop touring with The Naked Light, a six-piece backing band whose membership rotates between stalwarts from Richmond, Va., and Nashville, and whose effervescent live show earned them a Cafe Where slot at Bonnaroo 2012. April 30 of this year, More Strange News received an official vinyl and digital release via Richmond’s Dialogue Records.
Stream the record and read my full review after the jump.
Its title alluding to a collection of fairy tales published just after WWI by Nobel laureate Herman Hesse, MSN features 10 acoustic-based pop tunes with more than a few literal bells and whistles. Wallace comes by his comparisons to Paul Simon honestly, with his gentle but agile voice and his effortless ability to incorporate African, Latin and other influences into his own distinctive, enigmatic formula.
The record lives up to its title, permeated by the kind of reverence born by long study of or devotion to something, but not anything that we know well. As a narrator, Wallace is nonchalant about some pretty unusual circumstances, like the apocalyptic rain of meteors and rivers of blood in “To the River” (see the clever new video below). It isn’t a difficult line for us to follow, however, having been acclimated to a change-as-the-constant perspective from the top, thanks to another of Wallace’s hallmarks: his playful relationship with song structure. Like a wide-eyed tour guide, Wallace heads off full-tilt in one direction, only to turn on a dime into some secret passage that they don’t show the tourists, before depositing us in the chorus with what may sound like a different band than before, but who is clearly dancing to Wallace’s tune.
“Worse Things Have Happened,” for example, begins with a gospel chorus, which segues into a woman singing a Chinese lyric over a zydeco accordion line. Next, Wallace acknowledges the subversion of expectations with his best Indiana Jones shrug: “Fell through the trapdoor / You got scratches on your face / Take the bucket off your head / Worse things have happened to the human race.” Similarly, “The Wire Reprise” begins with a dry, folky shuffle over a gang vocal inspired equally by a gospel choir and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The texture slowly thickens, becoming a rock band at the bridge before the third verse, and reaching a full garage-soul gallop just before the close.
Wallace may get whimsical, but not precious: In the vein of T. Rex’s takeoff on Wind in the Willows (read by John Peel) and Of Montreal’s psychedelic detective story, Wallace includes a spoken track called “Everything Past Mars.” It’s a tale of a recovering war veteran in the days before the sun dies and swallows the solar system, told with wonder, but not fear or foreboding. Perhaps the narrator knows something we don’t, about colonies on other planets that make this less of a big deal? A bell rings, telling us to turn the page, but Wallace has half of another song to sing before he’ll tell us any more.
JWATNL have produced an intriguing record that bears repeat listens, with many subtle layers waiting to be discovered beneath the breezy surface. Their latest tour celebrates MSN’s long-awaited official release. In addition to dropping a new Daytrotter session, they’ll be making a tour stop at The Stone Fox on May 17, joined by folk-adelic Michiganders Frontier Ruckus.