Alibi V.28 No.35 • Aug 29-Sept 4, 2019 

Sonic Reducer

Russell James Pay Attention (Self-released)

I spent some time talking with Russell James before he pulled up stakes and left for the Left Coast. It seemed like a proper time in the enigmatic folk musician’s narrative to move on to the next outpost.

As I spoke to James, it became clear that something in his mind was turning around and round, that the forces he harnessed to make awesome folk music with The Porter Draw—and later as a solo roots act—had finally taken over, and meant to take Russell with them as they careened toward a new path that would leave only traces of what came before in its mighty, churning wake.

Much like the day Dylan put aside his folky ways as he headed down Hwy. 61, or perhaps the moment Elton John and Bernie Taupin abandoned their mythical, made-up Americana right before banging out “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fightin’—come to think about it, James’ effervescent evolution might even be analogized in terms of the realizations Billy Ray Cyrus must have had in his own American music showdown with Lil Nas X at “Old Town Road”—this recorded work marks a sea change for the artist known as Russell James.

I use the term artist in an purely respectful sense here—James calls forth and evokes relentlessly beautiful demons and angels from the vasty deep he’s found. It’s a form of maximalist expressionism that barely allows listeners into an ornately explosive and colorful world where Russell and his instrumentalism act only as arcane, abstruse transmitters of some faraway truth.

Lush and noisy in a challenging way—but with a plethora of melodic bifurcations and diversions offered plaintively, honestly and with a sort of wonder that has the power to shock both performer and listener—this might at first be considered a difficult work to those familiar with James’ beginnings here in Burque but it’s heartening to know this is an important work as it winds from musical encounter to musical encounter, entranced by its own magical atmospherics and anxious tone.

Halfway through, I thought that I would have liked to have seen other American bands like R.E.M. or Dinosaur Jr. go down this wild, soaring, flower and memory strewn path.

The third track, “Meltdown” is singular in as much as it uses a dense form of electronica to create a haunting subtext about de-personalization. Such esoteric endeavors are rarely successful by practitioners of traditional folk but it works for James because it’s so compellingly counterintutive, set against the banner of what he produced in the before time, in Burque. Here he shows that he has truly been transported to newer, hepper digs. It’s a stark contrast, but a damn beautiful one.

James returns to his roots—albeit augmented by the electronic echoes of the future—on the final track, “My Lullaby.” Listening to this album, wondering about the way James looked at me during our last meeting—and thinking about the words I’ve had with other musical visionaries like Brian Wilson or Wayne Coyne—I’m glad he took the trip. It might be a dangerous way to go, but the results are without compare.

Note: This album is exclusively available at Bandcamp.