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James Thomson is a wonderfully unassuming singer-songwriter with a calm and even energy that permeates through each song he sings. His songscapes are simple and old-school, and his influences range from alt-country to bluegrass. Despite Thomson being from Newcastle Australia his sophomore album “Cold Moon” feels like it belongs somewhere in the Southwestern United States; It has a real lonely desert feel to it. This is genuine, as the album was largely inspired by a trip Thomson took through this area. Thomson lists Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Woodie Guthrie, and Townes Van Zandt as major influences, and he does good job of channeling their iconic and simple Americana into the modern age. He pays homage to these folks by straying from ego or flashiness, and making this album about the songs rather than about himself.
The album opens with the sparse and lonely sounding title track “Cold Moon.” Everything about this song is unadorned. A single organ fade-in is followed by simple drums and a clear and rich acoustic guitar. Despite the sparseness, Thomson works to create more with less. The space in this song allows his unassuming voice to ring true, and each individual instrument to really cut through the mix. The imagery of the song works with this motif of separate parts creating a whole, and speaks of the sorts of things you might find in a city by yourself late at night. Thomson’s voice hovers somewhere between the qualities of an old country folkie and a modern day indie singer-songwriter, which is part of what makes his music fun and relevant. Something about his voice and the delivery of song has managed to get into my head. It seems lonely, but beckons you to listen and take in Thomson’s troubadour-like storytelling.
“. . .Won’t you come away with me, I want to be your man. . .” Thomson brings us closer in on “Highway Nights (I Want to Be).” This alt-country track could easily be influenced by the likes of Wilco or Ryan Adams and has a laid back country-pop style.
“Time is Ticking” is a toe-tappin’ bluesy number that has Thomson singing in a style reminiscent of Jorma Kaukonen and features some slick guitar work.
“I Don’t Mind” shows a more carefree poppy nature to Thomson’s work. It is a punchy number that incorporates elements of honky tonk and bluegrass, and is easily one of the catchier tunes on this album.
The downtempo single, “Can’t Go Home This Way” speaks to the sort of weary traveling and soul-searching that is ever present in Thomson’s music. In this track he speaks of his life on the road, and his vocal tone has a real raggedness that is in tune with the sort of image he projects. A few elements of 60s and early 70s folk-rock influences also start to come through. The layered guitar and dobro in this song that distinctly remind me of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Find the Cost of Freedom.” Thomson doesn’t have the same political edge of that era, but uses the style to help achieve the sort of empty feeling that comes with endless travel. The song is a good representation of his style, and I would imagine this is why it was picked as a single rather than using something a little more upbeat.
Is James Thomson some sort of wonderful traveling observer? Everything about the album “Cold Moon” suggests that. He avoids the tendency of modern singer-songwriters to focus inward. Love songs and self reflection are not the norm for Thomson; Instead he takes us through everything he has seen. This is his strength as a songwriter.
While this album features a few different formats and styles, Thomson seems to perform best on the songs that are the most stripped down to their roots. His most powerful tools are his voice and guitar, and it is really fun to listen to a singer-songwriter who can do so much with simple structures. And as an Aussie, Thomson has pretty convincing take on distinctly American styles of music.
Micah Subar is a Seattleite by way of Maryland. Runner, climber, and fitness professional by day, musician and writer by night. He has always been a little too opinionated about music, but has a soft spot for Americana. Listen to some of his recordings http://micahsubar.bandcamp.com/ Follow him on twitter: @micahsubar.