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While You Were Sleeping (2014)

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José James

José James is one of the most fascinating singers to appear in popular music in the last decade. Over five previous recordings he's tackled jazz standards, hip-hop, neo-soul, funk, and even Moroccan gnawa. He claims that While You Were Sleeping is a synthesis of everything he loves about music at present, citing NirvanaFrank OceanRadiohead, and Junip in his list. Therefore, he shifts directions yet again, this time bringing his own version of rock and pop into the vast arsenal displayed on earlier records. New guitarist Brad Allen Williams adds immeasurably to his ambitions, joining a veteran band that includes keyboardist Kris Bowers, bassist/vocalist Solomon Dorsey, and drummer Richard Spaven. "Angel" is just one tune where Williams openly references the Jimi Hendrix of Band of Gypsys andCry of Love. On "Angel," the band weaves fluid, silvery, wah-wah guitar distortion, jazzy Rhodes piano, drop-down funky bass, and rolling, shuffling snares and breaks under his dark, sensual baritone. The title track (which briefly quotes from Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" in the intro) weds folky psych pop to cosmic soul with a killer Williams guitar break. The quiet drama in James' voice melds elegance and earthiness. "Anywhere U Go" uses a droning guitar riff, an aggressive bassline, shimmering Rhodes, and skittering, propulsive breaks. The spiritually resonant "4 Noble Truths" is introduced by a strummed acoustic guitar playing in a minor key and a cracking snare. They are fleshed out first, provocatively, by an expressionistic string quartet and then a spiraling B-3. Becca Stevens makes one of her duet appearances here, on her haunting original "Dragon." Its Eastern-tinged slow groove is adorned by spacious guitar effects and elliptical keyboards atop a hushed rhythm section. Soul informs everything here. Check the stretchedMadlib meets Flying Lotus beats in the sexy, tender "U R the 1." The minor-key melody in "XX" is one of James' better belly-to-belly love jams. His steamy croon is elevated by his lyrics, which are as poetically cognizant as they are carnally aware. The contrasting elements of pointillist rock guitars and warm indie electronica rub up against the interlocking rhythm section. The closer is a reading of Al Green's "Simply Beautiful," with guest trumpeter Takuya Kuroda delivering a fine solo. It's no ordinary cover. James combines jazz, soul, and blues in a compelling arrangement that frames his trademark phrasing and restrained expressive delivery almost iconically. It underscores what the provocative While You Were Sleeping is all about: hearing these genres as they flow into, rub against, and ultimately redefine one another in creating a new whole. James' voice guides, agitates, and recombines them at will as he expands his creative reach at will; seemingly, it knows no bounds.