Jemima James – At Longview Farm
Folk rock has long since faded as a viable commercial musical form, but there was a time in popular music history when talented singer/songwriters with a solid command of fundamentals found great success bringing traditional forms together with just enough rock and roll spirit to give their songs some unexpected impetus. Tastes change with time, but these changing tastes are no measure of the lack of value some personal expression has. The music buying public, at large, has never heard of Jemima James, but after hearing her 1970’s collection At Longview Farm, there’s little question that she ranks among the finest practitioners of the style working during that time. The album was not released after its recording and only the efforts of James’ son Willy Mason ensured that the ten songs included here eventually received the hearing they have long needed. There’s an impressive amount of polish, control, and sincerity working in concert on this material and James is at the center of it all, inhabiting the songs with easy going but controlled confidence.
Only an artist sure of themselves would have dared begin this album with the unstated experimentation of “Sensible Shoes”. It demonstrates a number of things immediately. James is clearly quite skilled at bringing together a variety of musical forms in less than obvious ways and making them work together. Secondly, she’s also mastered the technique of incorporating the poetry of everyday speech into her songwriting without ever falling too far into cliché. She underscores that on the next song, “Havana Cigar”, a relatively straight ahead number in comparison, but also one with interesting rhythms and an uniformly high level of playing. The pop strength of “Easy Come, Easy Go” isn’t overbearing at all but, rather, has an effortless energy and catchiness that’s impossible to ignore.
“Book Me Back in Your Dreams” has a much more pronounced blues and country music edge than the earlier tracks, but it never loses the same melodic grace personifying those songs. James imbues the track with an unassuming and immensely likable vocal. Much like the earlier pop influenced numbers, “One More Rodeo” has good energy that never overwhelms listeners but, instead, blows past the listeners with impressive briskness that doesn’t skim over musical details but never wastes listener’s time either. The storytelling aspects of the song “Jackson County” separate it from many of the album’s other songs but it retains the musical strengths heard on the aforementioned songs. The penultimate song “Billy Baloo” has some similarities to “Jackson County”, but its lyrics concentrate much more on giving voice to a particular character than the cinematic qualities heard in “Jackson County”. The finale “Water at the Station” has a serious, hushed quality and strong folk song attributes, but it remains musically entertaining nonetheless and ends the album on just the right emotional note.
At Longview Farm is better served being released in 2016 than it ever would have in 1979. The folk rock singer/songwriter boom of the early 1970’s had flattened in the face of musical movements like punk rock and disco, but there’s no question about its inherent quality. Jemima James’ debut collection would have and still does compare favorably to the strongest first releases of her contemporaries. It is a worthwhile release for older and younger fans alike.
9 out of 10 stars.