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Man With a Love Song by James Hill (Review)

man with a love song james hillDecember, 2011 ~ As far as I’m concerned, Man With a Love Song is the best ‘ukulele album of 2011. Yes, we got “Peace, Love, and ‘Ukulele” from Jake Shimabukuro, “‘Ukulele Songs” from Eddie Vedder, and even “‘Ukulele Baby” from the Wiggles (oh, you didn’t hear about that one?!) to name a few, but the most original and well thought out has to be, in my opinion, James’ newest work.

James Hill is one of the few players on the circuit who is willing to sing well written vocal songs. This sets him well apart from his competition because it shifts the focus from his brilliant ‘ukulele playing to his brilliant musicianship and songwriting skills. I think the shift gives him more opportunities to be interesting and expressive with his music than he would have with just his instrument.

Man With a Love Song is a very clean sounding album. Very crisp and untarnished by over-instrumentation. It comes across as if James was singing right in the room. A single bright and punchy sounding ‘ukulele is usually the main accompaniment. Throw in a bass, violin, and some harmony vocals and you’ve got the simple formula for Man With a Love Song.

All of the songs have a bluegrass or “vintage” feel with smart and, many times, funny lyrics. The overall tempo is a bit slow, but the intimate bare-bones format keeps your interest.

I’ll detail my three favorite vocal songs. “Hand Over My Heart” opens the album and is possibly the fastest and most instrument-dense tune on Man With a Love Song. James has described it before as “a full-throttle heart-breaker.” It really showcases James’ signature take on bluegrass. The version of “Heart-Shaped Tattoo” I saw James and Anne Davison play live at the Kahumoku Workshop will be forever stuck in my brain as the most solid and uplifting song I’ve ever seen performed. It was incredible. The song isn’t quite as organic on the album, but still warrants hitting the back button on the CD player a few times before moving on. “Soap and Water” is a goofy song with some messed up harmonies. It’s driven solely by percussion and closely rhymed lyrics that revolve around some variation on cleaning. The song is obviously not meant to be very serious but the vocal parts in the break must have taken some major thinking to sound so wrong and still fit.

There are only three instrumental tunes and they are less “rip-roaring” then in the past. (You won’t find an “Ode to a Frozen Boot” here.) The “Indecision Rag” and “Voodoo Forever, Aloha (Part 2)” feature some backup vocals so that might disqualify them from the running of “instrumental”. But that’s okay because the one true instrumental – “Assam/Like a Bird” is stunning. It features close interplay between clawhammer-style ‘ukulele and violin. The harmonies that pop out really make the melody soar.

‘Ukulele albums in general are a bit hard to “rock out” to, but Man With a Love Song changes all that. This is an album that grooves. Even though it’s more simple than his last, James’ music shows through more truly on this album.

5 stars

Track listing:

  1. Hand Over My Heart
  2. Any Old Lover
  3. High Demand
  4. Lying In Wait
  5. Assam / Like a Bird
  6. The Satisfactory Waltz
  7. Soap and Water
  8. What Would You Have Me Do?
  9. Indecision Rag
  10. Man With a Love Song
  11. Heart-shaped Tattoo
  12. You Should See Me Now
  13. Voodoo Forever, Aloha (Part 1)
  14. Voodoo Forever, Aloha (Part 2)

Total time: 56:06

Borealis Records

Interview with James