American folk polymath goes anonymous for an arresting road map of emotional trip.
Although this artist has been around for forty-odd years and his early efforts saw Larry Carlton and Jim Gordon helping bring their friend’s music to life, James Lee Stanley remains largely unknown to masses – undeservedly so – which is why, perhaps, the veteran didn’t bother with adding any name, sans the name of his songs’ addressee, to the album laid down in a solo mode, yet teeming with vaguely outlined characters. Imaginary or real, if the people that appear here are engaging only when refracted through the writer-performer’s prism, the treks leading to various rendezvous became his real heroes – hence the record’s thoroughfare theme.
It’s not obvious from the beginning, still, as opener “Every Highway” exudes Gothic lyricism whose stark setting is gradually warmed up to open the piece’s sensual vastness and expose the acoustic roots of Stanley’s route, before the electric licks and double-racked vocals of “Dark Road” spread gloom via stereo vista. Contrasting the album’s anxious start, there are quieter, mellower stories such as “Redwood Landing” where James Lee’s soulful voice and strum marry mobile smile to a static expectancy, but the listener mustn’t be fooled by the brisk “Burt’s Tune” where ska undercurrent and handclaps can’t conceal the weight of choices this number’s protagonist would have to deal with in his progress towards catharsis.
Morale may be boosted with the tense “Never Say Never Again” yet, for all the romantic notions on display, “We’re Not Alone” channels its twang and echo into sweet solemnity, while “Live It Up Now” shoots a socially minded subject matter with a disco groove. As a result, “Ripples On The Dance Floor” sums up the record just fine and, pulsating in a different way, “Hang Up And Drive” is a hit-in-waiting – think Grand Ole Opry hosting the ghost of R.E.M. – unlike the vibes-stricken “Hey Look At You” which will adhere to more or less strict country-rock tropes. This scope should allow “Still Crazy Over You” roll out another headspace travelogue, and lead to the nocturnal delights of “I’m All In” – and, of course, that’s a very relatable sentiment. Susie might not be here, but the space she left feels wonderful.