“Another silly love song could make me sick/About a heart-broke emo rocker and his messed up chick,” Nebraska-bred singer-songwriter Joshua James sings on the opening track of his debut album, The Sun Is Always Brighter, addressing the decidedly topical tunes that helped make the record #1 on iTunes’s Folk Albums tally last year. “Geese” is a paean to the earth, “Lord, Devil, & Him” delves into his brother’s drug addiction, “Tell My Pa” is a devastatingly beautiful, blood-and-alcohol-soaked sonic suicide note, while a pair of powerful closing songs address wars past (“Commodore”) and present (“Our Brother’s Blood,” which opens with the pointed verse: “Apologies never sounded insincerer/Than when calling up a mother/Her bloody child on the battle field of war/While the pretty politicians/Lay their babies down to sleep/Not a chance in hell/Will that boy taste the blood”). James’s voice is scratchy and lived in, evoking contemporaries like Damien Rice and Xavier Rudd and giving his intricately painted stories a cozy, whispered-in-your-ear quality; the music is equally intimate—carefully plucked folk guitar enhanced with strings, accordion and piano. Ironically, the album’s best track, the pedal-steel-augmented “Dangerous,” employs a slightly heavier beat as well as the universal topic James attempted—but apparently failed—to completely eschew: “Yes, even the baddest white boy, he still gets sad,” says James.
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