James Day - Natural Things (2009)

James Day
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James Day must have one helluva pitch.  How else can you explain this rising young songwriter's ability to amass such talent for a shoestring, independent music project featuring ten of his recent compositions? And that's after pulling off the same feat three years ago on his excellent debut album, Better Days.  But, other than Angela Johnson (who gathered an all-star collection of singers for her A Woman's Touch two years ago), it is tough to think of any soul artist over the past few years who has brought together a cast like singers Mikelyn Roderick, Jeff Ramsey, Audrey Wheeler, Tim Owens, Gavin Christopher, Deanna and Karen Bernod and instrumentalists Walter Beasley, Ian Martin and U-Nam -- the supporting crew featured on Day's sophomore disc, Natural Things.

James Day must have one helluva pitch.  How else can you explain this rising young songwriter's ability to amass such talent for a shoestring, independent music project featuring ten of his recent compositions? And that's after pulling off the same feat three years ago on his excellent debut album, Better Days.  But, other than Angela Johnson (who gathered an all-star collection of singers for her A Woman's Touch two years ago), it is tough to think of any soul artist over the past few years who has brought together a cast like singers Mikelyn Roderick, Jeff Ramsey, Audrey Wheeler, Tim Owens, Gavin Christopher, Deanna and Karen Bernod and instrumentalists Walter Beasley, Ian Martin and U-Nam -- the supporting crew featured on Day's sophomore disc, Natural Things.

Several artists have tried to pull off what have become known as "Quincy Jones" albums over the past half decade, but only a few (such as the Johnson project described above) have turned their ambitions into unadulterated triumphs.  When it all comes down, the success or failure of these projects has largely hinged on the quality of the songwriting.  And that's where James Day comes in.  The New England-based writer is really a classic pop/soul stylist, his compositions uniformly hooky, well structured and listener friendly. Like a Burt Bacharach four decades ago or Barry Gibb in the 70s, Day is a singer's songwriter, providing exquisitely laid out songs for the artists with whom he works.

Natural Things largely begins where Better Days left off. The opening cut, "Speak Love" (feat. Mikelyn Roderick) is an absolute gem, a irresistable number that should find a place on either UAC or smooth jazz radio.  Just as strong is the title cut, with Walter Beasley providing his smooth sax background and Audrey Wheeler again showing (as she did on Better Days and does one song later on the duet "Love Makes") she is one of the most underrated female vocalists around.

The biggest change on Natural Things over its predecessor is Day's commitment to more upbeat material. "Sponsored By Love" and "Skin You're In" are both light dance numbers highlighted by nice vocal performances (by Deanna and Bernod), and on "If You Didn't" Jeff Ramsey helps provide an equally bouncy but slightly more muscular sound.  Yet nothing in Day's past work would prepare his listeners for "Outta The Funk," with Gavin Christopher growling his way through an electronic funk outing worthy of Cameo or the Gap Band, circa 1985.

With the release of Natural Things, James Day not only avoids the proverbial sophomore slump, but shows that the impression he left after his debut album was right on: He is a top-notch songwriter and a talent who is yet to receive the recognition he deserves from the masses.  So maybe he didn't have to have such a great pitch to bring together the talent that congregated for the new album; he just had to show them the sheet music.  Highly Recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 
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