After a gentle lullaby of a début with The Twilight Sessions, James Nighthawk returns for the follow-up “Beauty and Sorrow” sets sail for pastures more eclectic with a fuller sound, moving away from the acoustic folk seeped previous work but taking the folk stories with him across new lands.
Opener “The Ocean’s Gentle Breeze” opens in an unusual 7/4 tempo as the free and easy drum beats flip to 6/8 in places and meander with the waves washing the shore. Accompanied with some guitar that drips the blues into your ears like whispers of hazy nights gone by and James’ very hushed vocal, it’s a chilled vibe that opens the album. “Jenny” follows a bluesy band effort and what stands out here is the crystal clear production. The guitars are so close to the ear, the bass particularly having a warm and inviting tone to it, that even though the lyrics are reflective and whimsy, you still feel uplifted by the rousing chant like choruses. “Release” has a breezy tone to the guitars and percussion. The organic nature of it and the very 60’s guitar solo in the middle is both retro hip cool and impressive on the nimble fingers. Organic is something that you can feel in each of the instruments used – you can practically taste the cymbals as they glide effortlessly over the funky melody.
“I Will Not Be Your Bitch, Tonight” returns to pastures old with a biting acoustic guitar and vocal number. The track, aside from letting Nighthawk’s tongue seer each word into your ear with a stamp of knowing authority, is a perfect vehicle for his vocal abilities. The soft versus the bite and the balance between them is an interesting one. You can feel that he’d quite like to scream the chorus but chooses not to and the tension in it all is quite palpable. “Everytime We Fall” uses some beautiful violins to give a real country blues twang to the track – the kind you raise a glass to at a toast or have as a just before they make up in a rom-com. It’s perfect for movie placement and will be the album tear-jerker.
The album takes a sharp turn from whimsy to a darker side with “Disposable” which opens with James’ voice backwards warping over itself and the opening drum bars. The actual track itself is a fantastically sombre track which channels some Patrick Wolf in an acoustic form. Everything from the guitar to the solo to the faint higher pitched backing vocals seamlessly convey the want to hope for better and yet the warped vocals suggest doubt – it’s an incredibly clever piece and a favourite on the album. “Devil’s Curse” continues down the rabbit hole of dark as James Nighthawk becomes possessed by Pink Floyd and flips between minor chord heaven and a frantic thrashing rock spasms. It’s a far cry from the chilled opening of the album and feels like the bottom of a pit that has been coming for several tracks. “Little Girl” keeps you there too for James’ first piano written track. It reminds me of Marc Almond when he goes for his creepiest work. What really stands out here is the way ingenious violin work as they strings creak, moan, screech and slither like a Hitchcock movie. That saddled onto a childlike hypnotic melody and James singing in his breathy manner creates a stark and icy atmosphere.
“Beauty and Sorrow” feels like the climb to chilled thoughts begins here. The band is in full swing here with some excellent guitar work and distorted electric guitar that underpin a strong track and a potential single in waiting. “It’s A Sin” is a cover of the Pet Shop Boys track and it’s a free-flowing track that has energy by the bucket. The album closes with “Jenny (Acoustic Version)” which is a heartfelt guitar, violin and vocal arrangement. Suddenly what seemed actually quite a breezy and joyous track feels quite solemn and bitter-sweet. It’s great to have both versions as they both deserve air time.
James Nighthawk certainly has expanded his repertoire with his follow-up album. Whilst you can feel and hear that folksy blues is very much still in his heart, it’s when he starts embellishing on it where the album truly shines. Finely produced, tightly written and woven, Nighthawk surprises and delights with “Beauty and Sorrow” in equal measure. Higher Plain Music will be fascinated to see which direction his music will journey to in the future.