“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that twang.” It’s a bastardized line from the old jazz standard that’s often used as a measure of authenticity on a country record. That “twang” in the voice had better be real, not imported and affected. And James Steinle’s drawl is as real as it gets, even as the South Texas-born singer/songwriter has lived all around the globe before settling in Austin. That sense of home lends credence to the songs on What I Came Here For, Steinle’s latest release, and gives the characters greater depth.
“Black & White Blues” leads off the record and has Steinle and his band tuning up (the album was recorded live to tape) and launching into a honky-tonk about a guy outrunning the cops, drug-dealers, his own gambling habit, and whatever else you might have, all the while knowing he’s in over his boots: “Took my finger off/The weather vein/I lost the pulse/But I found the rain.” Geoff Queen’s pedal steel is a standout here. The title cut best features Steinle’s vocal style, somewhere between a croon and a conversation. Backed by Sam Rives’ piano, the singer is lost in happier memories while bemoaning a loss of civility: “Feels like no one ever has a good thing to say/Yet they always shout so loud.”
The album easily wanders through country styles: “In The Garden” recalls a Conway Twitty ballad with its slow build, while “Back Out On The Road” has a boogie feel and barrelhouse piano. “Blue Collar Martyr,” though, is something different – ominous keys at the top foreshadow a rough workingman’s tale – “Don’t have no purpose/Don’t have no pride anymore” – indicating that the blue collar life ain’t what beer commercials make it out to be. Here, Steinle’s drawl turns to a growl, angry and mean.
That drawl returns on “Without You” (the first single off the album) for the saddest kind of love song – the one where nothing’s the same after she leaves – “Could it be the short days?/Could it be her blues?/Something ‘bout it this time don’t seem right/Without you.” Personal favorite Jamie Lin Wilson (seriously – the world would be a better place if she guested on every Texas record) joins in, and her accompaniment gives the track a 70s, AM country feel. And “In Love Again (Two Different Languages),” the only co-write on the album, finds Juliet McConkey joining Steinle for an old school, sad country duet where a couple, long into a marriage, has a choice – “Now it’s side by side/Or free at last.” With all they’ve been through over the years, why can’t they find common ground – “What you see is what I see/So why can’t we just be/In love again.” It’s a question that not even a storyteller as gifted as Steinle can answer.
What I Came Here For was produced by Bruce Robison, engineered and mixed by Steve Mazur and mastered by Eric Conn. Additional musicians include Scott Davis (bass, banjo, percussion and B3 organ), Geoff Queen (pedal steel, baritone guitar and Dobro), Richie Millsap (drums and percussion), Sam Rives (keys, bass and background vocals), Brian Broussard (electric and acoustic guitar), and Caitlin Palmer and Rich Brotherton (background vocals).
Look for What I Came Here For at your favorite music downloading spot.
Check out James Steinle tour dates here: http://www.jamessteinle.com/shows