James Houlahan – Beyond the Borders
Originally from Boston, L.A. late bloomer James Houlahan unveils his 6th CD in the 55-minute, 13-cut Beyond the Borders (Drops Nov 18–Gumbo Luvah) produced by James (vocals/acoustic & electric guitars) with Fernando Perdomo (bass/keys/vocals).
James has a pleasant down-home approach to his compositions. Especially distinguished on “Back to the Start,” a basic pop-song but catchy & attractive, focused & polished.
Houlahan then crosses over to the scrumptious, blues-based violin-driven (courtesy of Scarlett Rivera) “Lonesome Love,” & “O What Is That Sound.” Both are jewels. “Lonesome,” has the classic “Rollin’; & Tumblin’” progression but just as a spice added.
There are certain songs where James excels & some are just mediocre. The quality’s always there. The mediocre tunes are just not as ear-tugging as his superior pieces. At times, I believe the mediocrity may seep in because of the California recording process. It’s a bit laid-back Eagles-Jackson Browne in nature. Whereas when James lets loose on bluesier songs he fares better in that environment & should record perhaps in Muscle Shoals, Memphis, or New Orleans.
On “Marge,” – to be honest, the backup singers sound uninspired. Tired. The song needs to be enlightened by more soulful singers. The type of backup Elvis had (think the original “Suspicious Minds”), Bobby Rydell (the original “The Cha-Cha-Cha,” “Sway,” (includes violins) & “Forget Him”), Ray Charles & Teddy Randazzo (“Let the Sunshine In”) — they had superb soulful backing vocals.
However, the backing on the cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger,” is captivating – more like that & “Marge” would have life. The musicianship is appealing & James doesn’t try to showcase solos or showboat. The songwriting is his concern & though many songs are slower, a bit sadder & going against the grain of mainstream while leaning more on storytelling with tempered grooves he helps to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Perhaps Houlahan is more troubadour than an entertainer. He wants to get a message across to enlighten or assure an audience that they’re not alone. He isn’t as political as Phil Ochs, or controversial as Neil Young but he has a touch of Fred Neil sincerity & imbues his tunes with presence.
On “Ballad of the Lazy Preacher,” he almost sounds like he’s conjuring the ghost of the late John Prine – and does it. “The Deep End,” drops back into a field-recording emphasis with electrifying Scarlett violin sawing keenly dramatic & effective. On “Bloom,” Rivera’s gypsy-flavored violin adds atmosphere with the haunting backup singing.
Musicians – Danny Frankel (drums/percussion), Joel Martin (pedal steel guitar), Scott Doherty (piano/keys), Leeann Skoda & Esther Houlahan (vocals).
Highlights – “Back to the Start,” “Lonesome Love,” “Through the Water,” “Ballad of the Lazy Preacher,” “The Deep End,” “O What Is That Sound,” “Bloom,” & “You Are Free.”
Color photo from James’ website courtesy of NekromanPix-Lichtbildmanufaktur (Greiz, Germany).
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Song Premiere: James Houlahan “Let It Go” from “The Wheel Still in Spin”