Brendan James’ 5th studio album starts off with a twinkling piano on “Windblown” that sounds like a wake up call from the hills and forests of his native New Hampshire. Once James starts singing it’s immediately clear that this is a man with a few things to say. The title track could easily become a protest song. “Stop for a minute and wipe the progress from our eyes, stare at the setting sun that holds us here alive” is a good summation of the track and the album as a whole. Stop, slow down, consider what is really important in your life. Is it money or is it happiness? Is the pursuit of one worth the cost of the other? The band sounds flawless and the mix is great in that none of the instruments overpower any of the others, including the front man’s piano.
James is not breaking any new ground on Simplify but what he is doing is taking a page from many of the greatest songwriters of the last 60 years. Paul Simon comes to mind more and more often with each listen, but James could also be compared to more contemporary artists like Damien Rice or Glen Hansard.
He is a songwriter of the highest caliber, a troubadour, a storyteller that knows what the score in life is, but rather than sounding down and out, he remains relentlessly upbeat. Even the heartbreaking chorus of “The Skeptic” seems to say “this is what is wrong…this this and this. But! Here’s what is also right” and it’s an admirable and inspiring sentiment to take away from a song. It’s little wonder that, with this attitude, he has already accomplished so much in his young career.
It is clear to me that James has already found his voice and knows what to do with it, but I can’t help having this lingering feeling that he is holding something back. He has the passion but I would bet money that there is a savage howl somewhere inside of him that he is suppressing, and I for one would be absolutely thrilled if he would let it out.
Other standout tracks include the bouncy sing-a-long “Hillary”, and and the philosophical “Constellations.” Simplify is an excellent record from start to finish, an inspiration to fellow songwriters, and will be in rotation on my iPod long after you’re done reading this.