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James Hyland and the Joint Chiefs: Celestial Navigations

                   The release of a new single, Place I Call Home, is an excuse to look back at the album it’s lifted from and to celebrate a quite beautiful piece of music-making. Call it country, call it folk, call it Americana – we slap these labels on to give ourselves a clue as to what we’re about to hear but none of that matters when you’ve got songwriting and playing as literate as this. James Hyland had ten years as the front man with the South Austin Jug Band who developed a devoted audience for their high quality music making. When that came to the end of the road he kind of went back to the solo career he was meant to be working on, and this album is the first result of that fresh start. “Solo album” is, of course, a ridiculous notion even in the context of one voice and one guitar. If, like James Hyland, you surround yourself with players of the highest order such as Kim Deschamps, Chip Dolan and Warren Hood (all names I’ve come to welcome when they appear on album sleeves), then the front man becomes just one part of something that adds up to considerably more than the sum of its parts.

                  The opening track here, Medicine Man, is an absolute stunner. The lyric takes the viewpoint of the marijuana farmer, forever running the risk of a raid from the DEA. It’s a nuanced song, taking a political stance about marijuana for sure, but also getting beyond simplistic polemic or romanticisation. For instance, he makes the point that many pot growers are against legalisation because they have a cultural antipathy to the business ending up in the hands of Big Tobacco. Lyric aside, the music is glorious: the rhythm comes like a slow wave, James’ voice is plaintively mournful and the bass slithers sinuously until it touches some core emotion. Solo sections from violin, pedal steel and guitar weave into the music seamlessly, with the acoustic guitar solo being particularly intense – it’s the intensity of a quiet person whose few words always carry a lot of meaning, and you feel kind of wrung dry when you get to the end of this song.

              The rest of the album is lighter in mood; songs about love, about life on the road and about his homeland (the beautiful Low Country Sound) all have a sweetness undercut by the inherent wry sadness you can hear in James’ voice and by intelligent lyric writing that addresses the muddled complexity of life. I love the line in Come To Me where he’s trying to attract the attention of someone new; he’s been burnt before, it seems, and he sings “I’ve been on my own so long/ There’s been no-one to betray (long pause) me”.

             James Hyland’s voice and his writing are both great, of a quality that has you itching to track down everything he’s done, but if there’s one thing that really has me drooling here, it’s the presence of Kim Deschamps and his pedal steel. James Hyland clearly loves the sound as much as I do and Kim plays it with a strong sense of all the history of the instrument, evoking memories every time he appears. There’s a wonderful moment at the start of Lancelot and the Lady of Shallot, where the pedal steel comes in loud and swooping – it sounds to me like a knowing reference to old country clichés, rescued from cheesiness by its sense of irony. And if he didn’t mean it that way, I don’t care, it sounds great, anyway.  Two old bandmates from the SAJB, Willie Pipkin (electric guitar) and Dennis Ludiker (fiddle) also play a huge part in making this a really good album, the work of a bunch of musicians who really know how to make music together.  

John Davy

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September 2018

1
The Devil Makes Three
70 pts.
Chains Are Broken
New West
FC,JB,RK,TJ,LK
2
Jimmy LaFave
65 pts.
Peace Town
Music Road Records
PKO
3
Malcolm Holcombe
48 pts.
Come Hell Or High Water
Gypsy Eyes Music
FB,JBO
4
Cody Canada & the Departed
47 pts.
3
Blue Rose Records
CVL,DHO
5
Jeffrey Foucault
43 pts.
Blood Brothers
Blueblade Records
MB,SZ
6
The War And Treaty
42 pts.
Healing Tide
Thirty Tigers
FCE,AL,MG
7
Martha Fields
40 pts.
Dancing Shadows
Independent
SP,DH,RST,RW
8
The Weight Band
35 pts.
World Gone Mad
Must Have Music
DD,CRS,BM
9
David Olney
32 pts.
This Side Or The Other
Black Hen Music
LM
 
The Black Sorrows
32 pts.
Citizen John
Blue Rose Records
 
11
Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis
31 pts.
Wild Wild Wild
Bloodshot Records
GS
12
Hadley McCall Thackston
28 pts.
Hadley McCall Thackston
Wolfe Island Records
 
 
Nathan Bell
28 pts.
Er Gwaetha Pawb a Phopeth
Angry Stick
PK
14
Curse Of Lono
26 pts.
As I Fell
Submarine Cat Records
MM,JF
15
Ryan Martin
25 pts.
Gimme Some Light
High Moon
 
 
Stephen Simmons
25 pts.
Gall
Locke Creek Records
TK,HDB
17
Jason McNiff
23 pts.
Joy And Independence
At The Helm Records
 
 
Jim Lauderdale
23 pts.
Time Flies
Yep Roc
 
 
Kevin Gordon
23 pts.
Tilt and Shine
Crowville Media
MP
20
Eliza Gilkyson
21 pts.
Secularia
Red House Records
KG,JJC
21
Boz Scaggs
20 pts.
Out Of the Blues
Concord Records
BH,JSM
 
Lucero
20 pts.
Among The Ghosts
Thirty Tigers
JJ
 
Melissa Carper & Rebecca Patek
20 pts.
Brand New Old-Time Songs
Independent
MW
24
The Jayhawks
17 pts.
Back Roads and Abandoned Motels
Legacy
 
25
Lori McKenna
16 pts.
Tree
Cn Records

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