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James Isaak - James Isaak

James Isaak

James Isaak

Jimsfault Records

Available from CD Baby.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker

Just a guy, his guitar, and his voice, occasionally a harmonica…CDs like this aren't often made anymore. Isaak is a storyteller in the way Dylan used to be before he decided pontificating was his main venue (turning to Jesus didn't help that any). This guy, however, most often uses linear narrative rather than the modern standard jumble of points, facts, and opinings. "True Love of Mine" really brings out the proto-Dylanish qualities, echoing spare tones of pain, inevitability, the asymmetry of relationships, and all the other dismaying surprises life holds for bipedal creatures.

What really makes this CD is its simplicity, its nakedness, its honesty…and, once or twice, its surreal fantasies. Christmas Song is based in a Blowing in the Wind melody and formed on the trials of Christ as he laments the ignorances of mankind ("I don't understand what it means to be a man / I know that I won't ever understand"), perhaps from the cross, as the tone vaguely implies. Like JP Jones, Isaak is questioning not the tenets of Christ but the human condition. He several times ridicules religion and Christian hypocrisy, twice in Do It All Again, one of the surreal tunes, but it's all part and parcel of a running commentary. That's what folk music really is, once the Mitch Millery happy-family aspects, demonstrated so often in the 50s, are stripped away.

Also like Jones, Isaak isn't a negativist, just puzzled at all the cruelties and glaciality flowing past him, the enigmas, the unnecessary blows aimed from hands unknown. The Bay is a Kafkan poem about an innocent fallen afoul of America's most recent horror in Guantanamo, with a gentleman as wall-eyed about his capture as any boy stateside who can't figure out why his girlfriend has gone sour on him. There is redemption, though, as in Man in Black, a song, as the title would have you expect, about Johnny Cash and his lifestory, a ditty that ends too abruptly.

Not a whole lot of musicians have tried this approach in the recent past, and very few succeeded like Isaak has here. He's reviving the staples of the modern folk boom, a legacy that passed too quickly into history, probably because this raw a mode is not easy to carry off with such integrity. Like a set of highly expressive line drawings, every element is crucial and set perfectly in place. For a first release, Isaak's eponymous CD is highly impressive.

Track List:

  • The Chains That Have Bound Us
  • Ballad of Byron Lee
  • The Bay
  • Do It All Again
  • True Love of Mine
  • All These Years
  • Nancy's Song
  • Man in Black
  • Fallout Lullaby
  • Christmas Song
  • Amazing Grace (trad.)
All songs by James Isaak except as noted.

Edited by: David N. Pyles

Copyright 2006, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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