“Should I stay home and write songs of love for no one at all? Or should I sing out on the town and keep pushin’ stones up hills alone and wonderin’ why?” Time Will Tell, the latest record from Angela James, finds the singer and songwriter in a place of serious introspection. Across her two previous releases – debut ep Down and Out and magnificent full-length Way Down Deep – she’s worn her heart on her sleeve while reflecting on all variety of love and loss. Even still, the raw honesty and focused curiosity of Time Will Tell is refreshing.
James set’s the tone with the album’s opening lyric, asking: “What if this becomes the last song I ever write?” It’s the first of several morbid daydreams that she explores on “What If,” each rendered with a blend of sweet humility and tempered optimism. She eventually finds peace in embracing uncertainty, singing “I’m all and I’m nothing, and everything is unknown. Here’s to hoping I hold on.” James’ voice is complimented by ambling guitar work, snowfall keys and an occasional swell of cello. It’s a mesmerizing combination; executed flawlessly by the talented group of musicians playing on this record.
“In Between” follows; a stark, haunting folk ballad that premiered on MWA in September (video). It opens with the rich, patient hum of Nick Mazzarella’s sax, and evolves into a swaying, gothic procession. The contrast between Ben Boye’s sprightly piano and Charles Rumback’s sedated percussion lends the song some urgency, and sets the stage for cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm’s phantasmal strings. “Don’t You” is a lighter and more elegant, thanks to James’ fluttering vocals, a tumbling beat, and a crushingly gorgeous piano arrangement.
The Tennessee-born singer conjures up some prairie saloon blues on “Bad Memory,” the kind of great song that can only be born out of a shit situation. It sounds like with just a little more giddy-up it could’ve been a Johnny Cash hit, but the slower pace allows Jordan Martins plenty of space to roll out a molten guitar solo. The sounds he produces are bent and sorrowful and dejected, an appropriate prelude to James’ comparing her heart to “a phantom limb still in pain.” The husband and wife duo share songwriting credits on Time Will Tell, effortlessly blending countless genres and styles across ten tracks. “A Minha Outra” and “O Tempo Diga” show off James’ ability to sing in Portuguese, a skill she picked up as a result of living in Brazil before moving to Chicago. “A Minha Outra” is a weave of bright plucking, ribbons of cello, rustling drums and the James’ soft croon. A swirling mediation that falls somewhere between mystical and extraterrestrial, “O Tempo Diga” is more chaotic, more indulgent.
The album’s eponymous track is a minimalist lullaby with the spotlight clearly on James, who constructs the song solely with her own voice. Tucked in the middle of an album that features a half dozen excellent musicians, that “Time Will Tell” is so memorable after only one listen is another testament to James’ songwriting chops. Things begin to wind down with the disjointed country blues of “Hey Girl,” which allows for a fun back and forth between Boye and Rumback that Martins eventually joins with his pedal steel. “Shifting Sand” is a next, a folkier tune with a confident strut and bright glow.
Time Will Tell closes with “Should I,” a perfect bookend to “What If.” James began the album by wondering what her imminent demise would be like, so where better to finish than with what-to-do-now? It’s easy to imagine that being a musician can (at times) make one sympathetic to Sisyphus and his boulder pushing, but at no point does James ever sound like her passion is wavering. “Should I give up? Make my empty womb a living room for us? Should I give it one more year? I’ll finally see the good in me and my doubts will disappear.” It’s a cross-roads most people wind up facing; weighing the desire to have kids against the desire to pursue other dreams. Dreams that in James’ case involve making music, which isn’t a lifestyle always conducive to having children. As she did in “What If,” she answered her own question regarding how to move forward. Time Will Tell comes out on March 4th. The baby is due in May.
Being “all and nothing” isn’t that different from having your cake and eating it too.
Angela James celebrates the release of Time Will Tell on Friday, March 4th at Constellation (8:30 PM, $10, 18+) Tickets RSVP on Facebook. She will perform the record in its entirety with jazz trio Stirrup as support. You can pick up a limited edition vinyl copy of Time Will Tell at the release show that features a collaboration with Chicago artists Sonnenzimmer, or purchase a copy (vinyl/CD/digital) via Bandcamp.