James Thomson’s debut album was an impressive calling card, a introduction to a talented songwriter already sounding beyond his years in terms of his songs and their lived-in delivery. The promise of that first sprawling collection of songs has been refined and stylistically expanded on the exceptional follow-up Cold Moon.
The balance and symmetry of Thomson’s writing is a standout facet of his music. From blues to country, folk to New Orleans flavours, through the positive vibe of love songs to the darker desolation of characters at the end of line he nails them all in mood and lyrical imagery. Though the album is built on traditional American musical forms there is a strong Australian personality conveyed through subtle references to steel city kids and red dirt roads via Thomson’s earthy and up-front vocal.
The predominant themes on Cold Moon are affairs of the heart, both good and bad, the way a city can wear you down and the desire to escape to the country. They are all well-worn thematic paths yet Thomson imbues them with an emotional vulnerability and weight that makes them seem vibrant and real. He has assembled an exceptional group of musicians to flesh out these songs including Hank Green (guitars) Grant Shanahan (bass), Lloyd G (drums), Johnny Gaucci (organ) and by taking the less is more approach they add textures, phrases and solos with just the right amount of presence to enhance the songs. It reminds me of the feel of last year’s Lucinda Williams album that wove many styles into one while still sounding distinctly Lucinda.
It’s hard to choose highlights as there isn’t a weak moment across the dozen tracks but this heart and these ears were particularly mesmerised by opener Cold Moon’s swampy, jazz-inflected blues crawl, the beautiful blend of Thomson and Demi Mitchell’s voices on ‘Highway Nights (I Wanna Be)’, The bluegrass folk of ‘I Don’t Mind’, ‘Red Dirt’s Neil Young vibe circa Harvest Moon, the melancholic death ballad ‘Can’t Go Home This Way’, the way the soulful chorus of ‘Heartless’ gently surges into view and the uplifting ‘Runaway Heart’ that throws caution to the wind and ends the album on a high.
Thomson has upped the stakes immensely on Cold Moon by adding a resonant balance of melody, emotion and authenticity to his songwriting and performance. It’s one of the finest local Americana albums of recent years – it’s that good.