Going down a Road feeling bad with Samuel James

Dark as a dungeon
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  October 17, 2012

Turns out those rumors about Big Black Ben were true: Not only has he "been with white women," but he's even fathered a child by the wife of the local police chief, who's now the prison warden intent on hanging Ben high now that he has him in his clutches after all this time.

Yes, with And for the Dark Road Ahead, we have come to the climax of Samuel James's Big Black Ben saga, and we're even introduced to Big Brown Brian as parts one and two of "The Execution of Big Black Ben," where James reads rhyming verse like Mark Twain mixed with Dr. Seuss.

Surrounding that are 11 more tracks of James accompanying himself on either dobro or nylon-string acoustic guitar, almost completely unadorned. For those who love to marvel at exactly how two hands can create that dueling bass line and melody on a guitar, the swirling sound that is both precise and slurred by a slide, he has certainly delivered yet again on his fourth full-length release.

Nor is it a significant departure from 2009's For Rosa, Maeve, and Noreen. If anything, this record is more reserved, with fewer flourishes and a more consistent songwriting structure. There isn't so much a singular song that sticks out at you as a series of gorgeous moments. The songs are all of a piece, more like a literary novel where you can't quite puzzle out the plot than a genre tale that's all story and action.

Which is sort of ironic considering his take on old-time blues might be seen as playing within a genre and his songs are so narrative. Songs like "Nineteen" are full of real people, with tragic life arcs and super powers: "a smile so bright/You could see it at night/Through a wall of solid lead." James builds them with a delivery that hovers right between a speaking voice and singing, a lilting delivery that's sometimes so reserved it's like he's whispering it right into your ear as you drift off to sleep.

That's the way he can be so bluesy without having anything in common with R&B. He's crisp and staccato instead of a crooner, except for the last words in lines where he likes to add a vocal bounce, lending just a touch of elasticity. "Sleep Through All My Dreams," with those muted nylon strings making for crisp runs of notes, is a sped-up lullaby, fighting to stay away but ultimately succumbing.

With a longer song like "Tan Sedan," there are so many twists and turns you don't even notice it's the same song. James plays around with rhythms and pacing so you're never quite sure where the tune might be going, even after a few listens. In "The Gurdon, Arkansas, One-Legged Table Blues," he teases a slow-down finish and pulls out of it deliciously, a magnificent Dixie blast that later suggests a grinding halt, but frees up the breaks and just lets everything run full-barrel off the cliff.

It's something he can do as a solo performer that would be incredibly hard to pull off with a full band, but which negates the need for more instrumentation.

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