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May 19, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Album Review: James Caroll – The Essex St Recordings

Local lad James Carroll has done well with this solo debut. Like many of you fellow Aro-dwellers, I probably heard some of this album being recorded on my way to get chips.

The Essex Street Recordings is a fairly predictable foray into the realm of bar blues. Carroll and his band rely strongly on straightforward song structures and simple chord progressions, with solid rhythmic ballads being the order of the day. This works well in places, like on the optimistic ‘Everything is OK’ and sweet album closer ‘Tiki’. Elsewhere, this unchanging reliance on loud guitar chords leans towards the mundane – ‘Taken for a Ride’ is very likely to have you skipping ahead.

Over the course of the album, it becomes clear that Carroll envisions himself as a pained raconteur, an enigmatic bandleader. This works in some places, like on the genuinely affecting ‘Once Again’, where Carroll uses vocal harmonies and subtle harmonica touches to explore his sentiments. However, the heartfelt vibe of the song is stretched too thin – this song is simply too long. The pained ballad prize, however, has to go to the epic ‘Lonely Man’, a 7-minute description of isolation that drags its heels for far too much, despite being moving in parts.

Carroll has a deep, rich voice that is well-suited to this ‘bar stool’ raconteur style, but doesn’t stand up so well on some of the longer songs. He stays in tune well, and wrings a good deal of personality out of voice that complements his songs. Despite this, you can’t help but wonder what he could be capable of with a bit of vocal training.

Essex Street
is a decent first effort, and showcases a style that, while it might not be in the least bit original, will no doubt find an audience. Carroll can definitely write a solid song – the bittersweet jump of ‘London’ is evidence enough of this. His backing band is also pretty good – things sound tight. However, I expect that Carroll is capable of more. If the songs were a tad less self-indulgent and lyrical themes stretched beyond predictable tales of whiskey heartbreak and easy sidewalk cynicism, we’d have an impressive album on our hands.

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