By Shari Geller
The opening track of “Casey James” bursts out of the gate with an anthemic salute to happiness. “The Good Life” is sung by a man content with the little things life has to offer and sure that he’s on the right track. “No doubt I’m right where I belong, No part of this road feels wrong,” Casey sings in the song’s catchy chorus. It is a fitting launch to the recording career of an artist who seems comfortable and happy with where he is right now. And it’s easy to see why. Casey James has crafted an impressive debut that brings together his unique blend of blues, rock, country, and soul into a sound that is distinctly his own.
Writing nine of the album’s eleven tracks and acting as co-producer (along with Chris Lindsey) on the whole album, the 29-year-old from Ft. Worth, Texas, gives himself nowhere to hide. His imprint is everywhere on the album, from the bluesy touches he brings to the many guitars he plays to the unexpected choices he makes to have an album that strives to avoid clichés and easy stereotypes. Just when you think you have Casey pegged, he shows you another musical side to him.
The second track, “Crying on a Suitcase,” is one of the two not penned by Casey. He infuses the song with urgency, the little country cry in his smooth vocals conveying the regret of someone about to let something good slip through their fingers. He makes his guitar sing, a plaintive wail that matches the passion behind the vocals.
The first single off the album, “Let’s Don’t Call it a Night” seems at first more polished than the first two songs, but then his sexy phrasing and bluesy guitar whine take the smartly-produced song and add a little dirt and heat to it. It has an undeniable hook and grabs you from the first note of the guitar to the last tasty lick.
After getting all sultry, Casey kicks it up to, if you pardon the pun, overdrive with the infectious and propulsive “Drive.” A new swamp-rock, mussed-up bluesy guitar riff introduces a more countrified version of the song than many of us are used to from his live performances of the song over the past year. It is now more understandable why Casey’s most often-played cover is the bayou classic “Polk Salad Annie” as there is definitely some Louisiana in that Texas boy’s blood. This “Drive” sounds like it should be sung around a camp fire, with everyone on instruments they fashioned from scraps in their backyards, a raw and honest song.
Casey moves from the rollicking, rough-edged “Drive” to the sweet, graceful “Love the Way You Miss Me,” a song about longing and loving that has really resonated with those who experience separation from the ones they love. Casey smoothes most of the country-twang out of this song, giving it potential crossover appeal. His slightly raspy voice, bluesy guitar riffs and soulful flourishes at the end could make this song a sentimental standard.
Casey keeps it wistful with the unabashedly romantic “Undone.” The song brings to mind Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” complete with David Lindley-esque lap steel guitar. Casey’s southern twang is in full command of the yearning and deliverance of someone who has traveled far to be at a place of contentment at long last. It’s a heart-tugging song that is as much about the pain of the journey as about the relief of reaching the destination. Casey’s voice is at its best here, when he lets go and taps into deep emotion.
The theme of mournfulness followed by salvation continues in the ultra-romantic “So Sweet.” Since he came on the scene as a finalist on American Idol, there has been a question whether Casey is a singer who plays the guitar or a guitarist who sings. Throughout the album, but particularly in this song, it’s a debate that can’t be answered. His voice, a distinctive mix of silky and ragged, is on full display here – grabbing you by the heart and taking you on the rollercoaster ride that is love. Yet the guitar conveys the pain and passion just as clearly as his voice does. Together, they blend to make a powerfully intense love song.
Just when you’re wrung out from the three songs of love and yearning, Casey brings it back up-tempo with the bouncy “She’s Money.” The song was hit with a heavy country stick and yet is reminiscent of another ‘70s artist, the Doobie Brothers. It’s light and catchy and helps you recover from the beating your heart was taking, though it’s not really my cup of tea. “Tough Love” is. Gritty, sexy, hard-edged, this is more southern-rock than country and really packs a punch. Casey’s voice rests in a slightly lower register and helps the Bon Jovi-meets-Tom Petty song deliver its strong, rough, cowboy vibe.
“Working on it” explodes like a runaway train. The second song on the CD not written by Casey, it’s clear why he chose it. It’s catchy, fun, with a great hook. It’s one of the best produced songs on the album, showing off Casey’s guitar chops and his honey-soaked vocals, a full, rich, multi-layered song that you can keep on repeat for some time. It’s full of sly humor and an upbeat message, a perfect bookend to the albums’ opening track.
But Casey takes the risk not to end the album on that happy, optimistic song, but instead closes with the wistful “Miss Your Fire.” The musical equivalent of a plot twist, the happy guy from the rest of the album is gone. His voice is almost a whisper, as he lists all the ways his life has changed now that his love has gone. “This bed is freezing cold, I never felt so alone” he sings with longing and regret, his voice disillusioned and disheartened. The song is a prayer, the instrumentation all languid and distant. And the CD closes with you feeling blindsided by this sad turn of events.
This is a terrific debut, showcasing the depth and breadth of Casey’s musical talent and influences, with a range of songs that move from the briskly upbeat to the searingly painful without a stumble. And, like any good piece of art, it makes you eager to know what’s next.