Some seven years ago when reviewing her second album, Handfuls Of Sky, and thinking it exactly the kind of attractive, mildly exploratory album to not scare the moribund local country establishment but still have a chance to reach non-traditional listeners, I thought Harmony James’ weakness was lyrics.
That quibble has been rather washed away here, along with the notion that she should even be limited to some is she/isn’t she crossover discussion. Let’s just call this adult music that may be, in truth, aged beyond its years.
If there is one particular moment that emphasises this, it comes during The Life She Left, a recounting of a moment when you’re trying to be a friend listening without judgment, while inside you’re crying out “Why? What? Are you out of your mind?”.
As the ruminative textures of violin, guitar and brushed drums play within the mixed emotional messages of her singing, James is neither ultimate wisdom nor disinterested observer, and the song neither inflates the significance of the exchange nor downplays the kick in its internal monologue.
That deftly balanced tone and her deepish voice, the sureness of the moves and the relaxed approach had me thinking that James might be earning the right to be counted among the likes of the more experienced Gretchen Peters and Rosanne Cash.
Like that pair, who incidentally made two of the best records of 2018, she is unhurried in delivery and yet has a certain urgency in her observation, pulls casually from rock and country and folk, and yet is best understood as natural.
In I Can Wait, with a tempo that all but pulls a hat over its eyes and suggests you come back in a few hours, James paints a picture of tough times met with equanimity that doesn’t glorify some “true man of the land” cliché but still allows for quiet appreciation. In Concrete Shoes, a more toughly dressed country rock song, the natural imagery is vivid but it’s matched by an urban edge, a process reversed somewhat in Grief, which undercuts the finality of the words with more than a flicker of optimism in the arrangement’s buoyancy.
As the happily contradictory Grief suggests, Resignation is not short of the kind of songs that just feel attractive to the ear. Little Kindness has a languid air and lightly laid harmonies and Can I Be That To You is as openhearted as it is pretty. Then there’s the album’s top and tail of biting anger in Change and earned wisdom in Bird In The Hand that come, respectively, with a big sky guitar and a top-down tempo, and airy folkiness that punches surreptitiously.
It all speaks to an understanding of herself, personally and musically, that may have taken some rough moments to grasp, but is paying off now. For her, but also for us.