James’ Artistic Restlessness is a Virtue on While You Were Sleeping
Among 2013’s ‘best kept secrets’ was an album titled No Beginning, No End, released via storied jazz label Blue Note. The LP fused jazz sensibilities with soulful execution. The exceptional affair was released by versatile, if underrated singer/songwriter named José James. James has proven he’s an artist capable of crossing over in any number of styles. Following cementing his ‘critical darling’ status, James returns more versatile little more than a year later with While You Were Sleeping, his fifth studio album.
James gets things started out strong with “Angel,” a record opening nebulously in the jazz idiom featuring an array of sounds. Although the intro stylistically suggests jazz, a stabilizing groove and fierce electric guitar give the cut a dash of urban and pop sensibilities. “Angel” is unquestionably sensual in tone, confirmed by a memorable lyric “I just wanna taste you, I’m sure you don’t mind.” Ultimately, “Angel” shines as one of album’s elite.
“U r the 1” opens mysteriously, capturing one’s attention. Heavy-hitting with a hypnotic nature, “U r the 1” draws its audience in. Continuing on the sensual journey established by “Angel”, “U r the 1” is a superb bedroom instigator. “While You Were Sleeping” proceeds, and while its dreamy vibe (continuing hypnotic tendencies from “U r the 1”) is appropriate, the song itself is ever too long. Still, pros include harmonic progression and James’ absolutely sinful falsetto.
“Anywhere U Go” has more drive than the ‘sleepy’ title track, with the harmonic progression once more favoring James’ jazzy persona. However, rock-oriented guitars suggest more of a pop/rock style here that unsurprisingly, James ‘knocks out of the ballpark’. Excellence continues with “Bodhisattva”, a more relaxed, enigmatic number. James initially sings in more of an undertone, though by the bridge, the intensity grows tremendously with restraint falling by the wayside. Supporting vocals during the second verse prove to be an excellent accentuation.
“4 Noble Truths” indeed proves to be a noble showing for the artist, as his colorful notes add character over a progressive harmonic scheme. The use of bowed strings proves to be a beautiful touch in regards to timbre and tone color. Those “noble truths” are followed by a duet between James and Becca Stevens, who perform Stevens’ composition “Dragon”. The crowning achievement of “Dragon” is the vocal chemistry between the two.
“Salaam” may only last a ‘split second’, but the instrument interlude is lush and soulful in spite of its brevity. It sets up “Without U” exceptionally, a cut again that leans more in the rock/pop vein. As always, the vocals are clear as a bell, and sound magnificent during the refrain in particular. Even though “Without U” is consistent, it can’t top the cutting edge “EveryLittleThing”.
On “EveryLittleThing”, José James comes off the most assured he ever has. James flexes his confidence, whether it’s the strategic f-bomb featured within the first verse, or his later assertion “Everybody thinks I belong to them / but this sh-t worldwide.” The pop/rock production sporting an underlying jazz progression matches James’ feistiness. Ever want to hear a jazz singer with ‘baller’ status – James is the one.
After sharing his confidence, James once more returns to mysterious territory with the creative “xx.” He goes on to close While You Were Sleeping incredibly refined and classic, covering Al Green’s supremely popular “Simply Beautiful.” James duets with Takuya Kuroda; both harmonize superbly.
Like No Beginning, No End from 2013, José James delivers another top-rate album with While You Were Sleeping. No Beginning, No End might get the edge in quality compared to While You Were Sleeping, however this effort is more adventurous, taking more artistic risks. Hopefully, the Grammys will at least be calling James’ name for a nomination sooner than later.