Reviewing albums that you absolutely love is in some ways the most difficult ones to write. It’s hard not to be hyperbolic, something your editor will undoubtedly point out, which is good since no one believes you when you say “the greatest guitar solo ever recorded,” or “harmonies that challenge the best of the Beatles,” or something like that. So you have to listen with a critical ear and temper your praise. It’s tricky because we have to remain as objective as possible but readers want our opinion and that gives us a sense of authority that we need to take seriously.
Joshua P. James and the Paper Planes forthcoming release “Please, Please” is posing these problems for me. I want to shovel heaps of praise on this record but I want you, the reader, to take me seriously so you actually buy this record and listen to it.
Joshua P. James and the Paper Planes certainly convey extremely well that which they were trying to get across. “Please, Please” is country/folk at its best. This is a vague description, I know. So I’ll just say that JPJ and the Paper Planes reside somewhere in between the rollicking styles of Ricky Nelson and the poignant story telling of Willie Nelson. The songs themselves are masterfully written– catchy melodies, clever and intelligent lyrics, and dynamic rhythm guitar. If you’ve ever seen a Joshua P. James solo set you will know that these songs can easily stand on their own with nothing more than the dynamic strumming of an acoustic guitar and the country drawl swoon of Joshua P. James. However, adding the compliments of drums and a stand-up bass gives the songs a highly creative edge and a professionalism that will ultimately convince the powers that be to get this record on the radio and television.
As far as the record itself is concerned Joshua P. James, himself makes the claim that he writes songs about three things: drinking, girls, and traveling. Indeed those topics are covered on this record. At first glance it might seem a bit clichéd that a country/folk record has covered those three topics but James is aware of silly folk clichés evinced by the explicit mentioning that “all the time trains come running through old folk songs.” So if you’re worried about clichés, as any astute listener should be, you need not concern yourself with “Please, Please.”
The opening track, “Haunt Your House” is a rollicking country tune about dying in the presence of a fiery confident woman, insisting that if this man does die he’s not going to leave, he’ll haunt this woman’s house. The melody is extremely catchy and with the driving rhythm guitar being the first thing you hear it’s the perfect opener.
Following “Haunt Your House” is “Prettiest Girl,” covering two of the topics the Paper Planes seem to know all too well, traveling and love. “Prettiest Girl” opens in the minor key talking about grizzly bears “crawling all over Denali.” As far as songwriting is concerned I think the minor key is an interesting tool. It immediately conveys a sense of caution. Used properly it can paint an otherwise playful topic into one that demands to be taken seriously. This is exactly what “Prettiest Girl” does. The reason grizzly bears are mentioned is to communicate that the songwriter has witnessed enough to be confident about the girl he’s chosen. He’s also been up north and “rubbed those glaciers with (his) own freezing hands,” he’s seen the Liberty Bell but apparently Philly girls “have too many cracks.” The tone of the song lets the listener know that the songwriter is taking his relationship very seriously and there is nothing in this world that will challenge that, not even farmer’s daughters in California.
“Run Like Fire” is one of my favorite songs on the album. The stand-up bass work of Evan Harrison Parker is highlighted here. He solos on the first few bars to open the song and the line is creative and even a little funky. He then seamlessly moves out of this creative, funky bass line and falls back into the 2/4 time signature which drives home the message of the song—that of running having just killed a man (it’s ok the man was no good). This is something that Joshua P. James and the Paper Planes have really mastered, that of communicating the nature of the expression through the instrumentation, tempo, and energy.
While “Run Like Fire” highlights Parker’s precise and well-honed bass skills, “Wildflower” does that for the drumming of Brandon Woods. Just listen for the bell of the cymbal at the halfway point in the last chorus and you’ll immediately fall into the groove and start nodding your head. In addition to this, the harmonies he and Parker provide glue the song together and allow an acapella moment that hits you in that perfect spot to make you smile, or shout, or raise your fist in the air when the instruments return. And they return right wear you want them to—yet another songwriting skill that is far too often neglected. Giving the listener what they want when they want it is powerful, like a heartbeat. It beats when you expect it to and you like that because it keeps you alive.
Love and traveling songs covered, no country/folk record would be complete without a self deprecating song about coffee and/or bourbon, in this case both, and lamenting the current state of affairs the songwriter finds himself in. “Shape I’m In” has James’ guitar open with some single note picking that seems to melt into the verse, “I take a little bit of bourbon to put me down to sleep. It takes about a half a pot of coffee to wake me up again.” Not much happens in the song as far as story goes, you get the impression that James is sitting on his couch staring at the wall with a coffee mug filled with either coffee or “anything with proof,” depending on the hour of the day. The songwriting prowess of Joshua P. James however is not forgotten. When describing how he wants to feel differently he promises that he will “take a hammer, these two hands and some tin, try and smith me a new shape to be in.” Try and smith me a new shape to be in! A lesser songwriter would have chosen a less interesting verb like, mold, or pound, or something. And once again the harmonies provide the backdrop that makes the song extremely palpable.
The real gem on this album, in my opinion, is the closing track “High Lonesome.” The finger picking illuminates Joshua P. James’ skill on the guitar and also sets the mood as one that is certainly a bit lonesome, but not necessarily desperate. The rolling cymbals, single note bass lines, and backing vocals mold this song into perfection. The lyrics point to universal emotions, “we’re all just cold spells in a heat wave,” and also show that James does not stick to old country tunes or whiskey for inspiration. “I am an old man with a young face, somewhere in a closet is a portrait that shows my age” shows a connection to literature (Oscar Wilde if you miss that reference) and highlights the intelligence of this band, not just because of an obscure literary reference but the fact that they are willing to and capable of reaching beyond standard influences.
There is a hidden track on the digital copy and I could buzz like a bee, or howl at the moon trying to describe it to you but I’ll let you discover it for yourself. It’s good as you might expect.
In the end Joshua P. James and the Paper Planes have provided an album that will stand among the best that Columbus will offer all year. “Please, Please” will officially be released on April 21st, the show will be held at Kobo. You can get a 3-song sample off of “Please, Please” by entering your email address at www.joshuapjamesandthepaperplanes.com I urge you to get hip to this band. We may well lose them to bigger and better things very soon.