For a guy who doesn't sing a lick and doesn't publicly play an instrument, James Day has had an outsized impact in the indie soul world. He's done it with classic pop/soul songwriting skills and a knack for surrounding himself with incredible vocal talent to make his compositions shine -- two talents the importance of which should not be understated.
In time for the holiday season, Day returns with his third full-length album, Seasons and Reasons, another solid "Quincy Jones-style album" on which Day, the ultimate indie A&R man, ups the ante on the talent he assembles -- including several singers who have been MIA for a few years. Where else would you find long-admired soul vocalists such as Donnie, Trina Broussard, Gavin Christopher and Mikelyn Roderick, lined up alongside equally talented young singers like Cleveland P. Jones, Tim Owens, Jeff Ramsey, Jill Zadeh, Shellee Shae, Kevin Flint Jackson and Karen Fiore? They're all here, and better yet, Day coaxes out of them vocal performances as good as you'll hear in 2013.
Day's work has always reflected his love of 1980s pop and soul music, and Seasons continues to mine sounds of that era. Individual cuts recapture the aura of 80s stalwarts as varied as Nile Rodgers ("R.S.V.P."), Rick James ("Never Enough You") and even Kashif ("Rewind"), sometimes sounding inspired and other times a bit too reverential. But despite the sometimes-cautious production, Seasons is, in its heart, a singer and song album, and in that vein it is an unadulterated success.
Day's approach makes Seasons the most comfortable of comfort food for classic soul lovers, even as it largely eschews hip-hop influences. So adult listeners will likely gravitate to "R.S.V.P.," a strong dance cut featuring Donnie in the first performance we've heard from him in a half decade. Similarly, the aptly-titled "Rewind" has a thumping, fat bottom and serves as a reminder of just how great a vocalist Audrey Wheeler is (why is it that we don't hear from her more often?). Smooth soul is also well represented on another Wheeler cut, "Considered Delivered," a tasty duet with 80s star Gavin Christopher.
While Seasons will get the most attention for its collection of well known stars, it also serves as a showcase for a number of great young vocalists. We've been fans of Jeff Ramsey since Day's Better Days album, but his vocal partner on "Celebrate Our Love," Karen Fiore, is a revelation, sounding like a young Patti Austin on what may be the album's highlight cut. And SoulTracks Award nominee Cleveland P. Jones continues his breakout year, ripping it up on the dark "No Son of Mine" and the duet "Never Enough You."
The release of Seasons during December is no accident, and Day works softer material on several songs designed to capture the wonder that often accompanies the holiday season. The best of these is the beautiful ballad, "WWYD (What Will You Do)" featuring Fiore, that comes of as heartfelt without being too saccharine. Less successful are two cuts that are a bit overly precious: "Christmas Valentine" is just too by-the-book to be truly poignant, and "1000 Prayers" - while carrying an attractive, hopeful message of faith - loses steam by mimicking the ersatz soft rock songs that dominated CCM radio in the late 80s and early 90s.
One thing a listener can always count on with a James Day album is a collection of melodic, stick-in-your-brain songs and terrific vocal performances, and Seasons delivers those as well as anything he's done before. It's great to hear so many underrated classic performers and on-the-rise new ones together in such comfortable surroundings, and, at a time when songwriting is at a premium, to find a disc chock full of solid compositions. Seasons is a fine addition to the list of 2013 holiday releases and a welcome start-to-finish collection for adult pop and soul lovers. Highly Recommended.
By Chris Rizik