Seth James – Different Hat
Tiny Ass Records
14 songs, 50 minutes
It’s always kind of cool when the music an artist makes doesn’t fit their image. Like Buddy Holly helping to create the foundation of what would be Punk Rock in his big horn rimmed glasses. Seth James, the fellow Texan and a rancher, is like this. The image of a cowboy with big cowboy hat, work shirt tucked into a big belt buckled pair of (what have to Wrangle) jeans, Seth sings, plays guitar and writes with a pop-wise rootsy funk. On his 4th studio album Different Hat, James leans into this juxtaposition in a big way. Matching his own excellent eclectic originals with well chosen covers by Roots predecessors such as Delbert McClinton (who also seems to be a bit of a mentor to James), JJ Cale, and Robbie Robertson. James’ originals stand tall next to the giants he has chosen to summon creating a wild rollercoaster of snappy Roots Rock, funky NOLA styled shuffles, Soul balladry and Texas Blues.
Different Hat works because of the stellar performances of the band, a cohesive unit seamlessly moving from motif to motif. Kevin McKendree’s keyboards are the melodic anchor for the ever changing environments. Rhythm guitarist Bob Britt and bassist Steve MacKay connect stridently with main drummer Lynn Williams and Yates McKendree who sits at the drum set for 3 songs. Background vocals from Wendy Moten, Jessica Walker, Glen Clark, and Bekka Bramlett add layers and accents throughout. Similarly the horns of Jim Hoke on tenor and baritone and Roland Barber on trombone juxtaposed to the strings of Austin Hoke on cello and Laura Epling on violin and viola add bombast and lushness respectively. Fellow Texan special guest guitar wranglers Anson Funderburgh and Lee Roy Parnell each add their seal of approval to James’ real deal cred on a track each.
The music is a revelation, creating something unique and special, when James is walking that fine line between styles. On the McClinton penned “Solid Gold Plated Fool” studded with horns and swirling with backbeat, this song has an effortless Band style arrangement. The extended horn break, strolling barrelhouse piano and stop time chorus reinforce the irreverence of the story. James channels his inner Al Green wailing over what could have been an outtake from Let’s Stay Together on his own “World Full of Strangers.” This song is especially poignant in it’s agoraphobic COVID lock down lament.
The earworm of the record is the annoyingly catchy “Moonpies.” Starting with the open breathy chorus that sounds like the prelude to an old Judy Garland number in which the narrator describes all the things he would do to catch the Santa Rosa Roundup Queen (including diving for moonpies?). “Moonpies” breaks away to a funky, fat and splotchy, 2 chord stomp. The juxtaposition is maddening and James knows it, hammering the listener with that opened up chorus and then driving the listener into a trance with the funk. I was humming it for days in spite of myself.
Seth James is a unique and talented singer, songwriter and guitarist. Listening to Different Hat, one gets the feeling of a big live band doing their raggedy thing in a Texas barrelhouse in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe it’s just James’ image. This music is actually quite slick and refined, executed with the precision and depth of feeling that a tight professional R&B band would have. Either way it is a fun hat to try on.