Soul-Eyed Blues: The Music of James Lee Murray

Album review for “Resonate,” the upcoming release from Northern California-based soul-blues singer-songwriter James Lee Murray.

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The opportunity to experience and engage with a new album prior to its release is a rare and special privilege. As with any new work of art, a fully realized album enters the world on its own terms, free of pre-conception. It opens itself to you, and you to it. What happens next cannot be predicted, only transcribed.

Such was the state I found myself in upon receiving the tracks that together comprise “Resonate,” the forthcoming album from James Lee Murray.

The album release is coming in stages and will begin with a release party at which CDs will be made available to event guests. This will initially be the only way to own the music—a special gift to Murray’s closest and most dearly held supporters.

As with so many an important album, “Resonate” was born from trial and revelation—the birth of a child, the loss of a parent; the challenges that life throws in our way as we work to traverse the tracks of our journeys. Serendipity played a part as well, and while it could not have been predicated in advance, that the album should be recorded at Greaseland under the watchful eye of Kid Andersen seems almost pre-ordained in retrospect. We have Lisa Leuschner Andersen to thank for this, and her glorious voice adds so much to the sonic tapestry woven by Murray’s songs.

As to the album itself, I begin with a question: When was the last time you found yourself speaking of Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald, and Michael Franks, all in the same breath? For me, it was the morning I first listened to “Resonate.”

Of James Lee Murray, I can say this—that he seems to have sprung fully formed from the soulful side of the 70s tracks with a made-for-vinyl sound heard all-too-rarely across today’s thinned out airwaves, and his blue-eyed blues are a welcome injection to an otherwise barren soul landscape.

For listeners of a certain age, the laid-back roads Murray traverses might conjure James Taylor at his bluesiest, Bobby Caldwell at his smoothest, or even Stevie Winwood circa 1977. But don’t be fooled by the chill exterior. There is dirt and depth here, and in between the slinky Rhodes-powered grooves lurks a potent bluesman with a sly flair for both salvation and seduction.

As to the procession of musical luminaries already populating this review, it’s true that James Lee Murray is one of those artists whose record collection you can’t help but envy — listening to him makes you appreciate whoever it was that raised him.

To experience Murray’s new release is to take a journey down seductive byways, and much of the trip’s laid-back charm emerges from its smallest moments — the slightly irregular creak and break of Murray’s effortlessly fading falsetto, the funky 16th note percolation of an octave baseline under a passing chord, the skip and pop of a side-stick breakdown, a lyric that stays with you just a little longer than you expected:

free as a jellyfish kite
out of body, out of water
the gulls tried to give her advice,
told her the sky wasn’t made to hold her
she said, i don’t need your advice,
i’d rather do it wrong then admit that you’re right

This is soul-blues poetry at both its finest and its strangest, and in this way, Murray is as much the child of Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield as he is a mendicant at the altar of Sam Cooke. And by the way, when Murray hits the word “born” mid-song, expect to get those Sam Cooke chills just as I did.

Returning to the theme of little moments mattering, there is a moment in the solo piano tour de force that is “I’m Home” where the rolling gospel chords beneath Murray’s supple hands break clean for a moment, and a lone hand clap fills the space with its solitary pop. It is a moment so genuine, so soulful, so alive, that the air around the song is literally charged with its energy.

Those gospel chords are felt throughout the album, underpinning the Marvin Gaye-like elegance of “Neutrinos” with a touch of Al Green, or threading a trace of The Staple Singers into the sonic quilt of “Resonate.” But it’s on “I’m Home” that Murray takes you all the way to church.

If it’s not already clear, there is a great deal to love about this music, these songs, and this album. But above all else, it is Murray’s voice that matters most. I am so grateful to discover a singer who never resorts to histrionics to tell his story; instead, it’s his patience and restraint that draw us into the intimacy of his reflections.

Murray wears both his heart — and his influences — on his sleeve, and because of this, comparisons to contemporary artists such as Leon Bridges are probably inevitable, but make no mistake about it, Murray is his own man. A man out of time, perhaps, but — to borrow and bend a line from one of his many poetic lyrics — we can see his soul in his eyes.

I may have called his music blue-eyed blues before, but I’ll call it soul-eyed blues forevermore.

If you have plans to be in Northern California on September 8th, 2019, then you are encouraged to attend what promises to be a remarkable event. If you do not yet have these plans, you are encouraged to make them. Should this provide impossible, then please be on the lookout for when Murray expands distribution of the album to include digital availability. If the album resonates with you as it has with me, you will be deeply moved.


Facebook event link:

Album teaser:

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“Preacher Boy is a songwriter of startling originality.” —MOJO #AltBlues #Americana

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