Great granddaughter of noted American spiritualist William James and great grand-niece of American novelist Henry James, Jemima James certainly has always possessed an impeccable artistic pedigree, but the story of how she has finally arrived on the scene is far more remarkable than her lineage. Team Love, a record label formed by songwriter Conor Oberst and Nate Krenkel, obtained the tapes of a shelved album James wrote and recorded in 1979 while courting her son Willy Mason as a new artist the label expressed interest in signing. A single listen makes it absolute clear that James composed and assembled this album with no regard for its potential mainstream popularity. Team Love Records has performed an invaluable service for all fans of great songwriting by ensuring this unheralded gem achieves the widespread acclaim and attention it deserves.
Some of her influences are rather obvious. The first track on At Longview Farm, “Sensible Shoes”, is initially vocally reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s finest work from the decade and adopts that same stripped back folk sound so prevalent on Mitchell’s earliest releases. The song soon takes another direction, however, and its orchestral swell gives it considerable and unexpected grandeur. “Havana Cigar” is a more uptempo number and much more resolutely cast in a folk music mold than the first song. It is given needed impetus from tasteful drumming, but as on other tracks, the spotlight remains squarely on James’ voice and lyrical content. The loping rhythm of “Esperate” is a definite change of pace for the album and James gives it a particularly impassioned vocal, but it’s the inventive percussion that sets this apart from the preceding material.
The languid grace of “Book Me Back in Your Dreams” incorporates steel guitar and harmonica to give it a slightly mournful, though never despairing, tone. The emotiveness of James’ vocal is quite distinguished on an album full of great vocals – she invests herself entirely in this performance and shows exquisite timing throughout. Her narrative gifts as a lyricist are readily apparent on the track “Jackson County” and she takes great care to deliver the song with dramatic, but never overstated, phrasing. The bluesy hue of “Billy Baloo” brings a second vocalist into the mix and the male voice is an excellent match for James’ higher register sensitivity. The penultimate song sets up At Longview Farm’s finale, “Water at the Station”, quite nicely. This muted closer foregoes any of orchestrations and soft rock leanings previously heard on the album in favor of a straight folk song approach that’s quite beautiful and affecting.
The wait is worth it. Jemima James’ talent is apparent on this release and she produced a collection that is both of its time and for all time. These are solid, sturdy songs that speak to universal human experiences and have a powerful identity that never fades as the album progresses. At Longview Farm may have been written and recorded in 1979, but it still rates as one of 2016’s most interesting and successful releases.
9 out of 10 stars