Casey James – ‘Casey James’ – Album Review

Casey James may have finished 3rd on the much-maligned season 9 of American Idol but his strong musicianship, the Texas-based amalgamation of blues, rock, country, and soul in his musical roots, and standout performances like his covers of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and Shania Twain’s “Don’t” led him to a major label record deal with BNA Nashville. Then-new Sony Nashville chairman and CEO Gary Overton surprised many among the Idol faithful by not putting Casey on an accelerated release schedule to take advantage of his Idol recognition. Instead, he gave Casey a long time to develop his debut album, allowing him to test and work on a number of songs on the road and not sending out the lead single for the album until mid-August 2011, almost fifteen months after Casey’s time on Idol ended. Now, about twenty-two months after his Idol run was over and with his single , Casey James is finally releasing his self-titled debut album. The album features Casey not only on vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and dobro, he also co-wrote nine of the album’s eleven tracks and co-produced the album with Chris Lindsey, a level of involvement that is unusual for any mainstream major label artist.

The surprises don’t stop there. Though Casey had plenty of difficult life experience to mine from in crafting his album, his debut has an optimistic, contented and romantic vibe. Casey sets the tone right out of the gate with “Good Life” (stream here). The song kicks off unexpectedly with a bass line, complementary electric guitar, and quasi drumroll, before revving up into a more conventional and likable upbeat roots rocker and a cheerful description of the reasons he has to be happy. In writing the song with Scooter Carusoe, Casey came up with lyrics that are more personally symbolic than narrative. Their purpose, it seems, is more to give listeners points of reference about how Casey sees happiness and peace: a morning cup of coffee, “jelly over warm cornbread,” old boots and new socks, “forgiveness on Sunday,” and “syrup on pancakes”. The message, in introducing Casey, is that he’s a simple guy appreciating the simple things in life.

And as the chorus tells us, “No doubt, I’m right where I belong, no part of this road feels wrong,” Casey is happy to feel like he fits right in where he is, perhaps not only in life but also in the country genre. “Good Life” may be a simple song, but the instrumentation shows some careful thought. The bass guitar is used for more than rhythmic purposes, and its complementary melody (especially during the tag chorus) helps the lead electric guitar & sunny Hammond organish accents to “pop” brighter. There is also a switch in the second verse from electric rhythm guitar to a rhythmic ganjo-like background, and it helps lend more of a gently rootsy feel to the lyric (which is about going to see his girl). This kind of attention to detail elevates an otherwise conventional song into a genuinely interesting listening experience.

The happy romantic vibes carry forward into tracks like the t25 lead single “Let’s Don’t Call It A Night,” “So Sweet,” “Undone” and “She’s Money.” “Let’s Don’t Call It A Night” has proven to be a solid introduction of Casey to the country scene, showcasing Casey’s ability to set a mood not through descriptive lyrics but through a gritty, soulful vocal and a thoughtfully-chosen combination of bluesy and country guitar tones. That combination works even more effectively on “So Sweet,” which works a strong bluesy groove, has the catchiest melodic hook on the album, and does the best job of any ballad on the album of establishing a natural fit between the lyrics and the metric scheme. The lyrics, which represent a guy who had given up on love until he met the one, don’t provide any unique details or tell a distinctive story. But each phrase lands just right in its rightful groove while the mournful bluesy guitar tones and the world-weariness of Casey’s voice on the verses say all that needs to be said about this guy’s emotional history. The chorus is a musical lift aided by some nice background harmonies and the way Casey goes after the melody in the chorus conveys a likable need/gratitude there.

“Undone” covers a lot of the same ground as “So Sweet.” In this case, it’s the point of view of a person who has been through his share of unhealthy relationships but has finally found the one. Though its melody isn’t as ear-grabbing as “So Sweet”‘s, “Undone” sneaks up on you somewhat after multiple listens with some sharply written lines. The opening two lines are a great way of introducing his story:

Peace of mind sometimes depends, On the path your heart’s been travelin.

The most illustrative lyrics in the song are the ones that touch on what the person’s been through, as when Casey sings “I ain’t up all night praying for sleep, my empty pockets don’t feel so deep.” Although “undone” is generally a word with negative connotations when it comes to relationships, the lyrics written by Scooter Carusoe and Casey give it a different conceptualization in the bridge: “Undone, like the clouds pouring out a perfect rain. Undone, like the Grace of Heaven healing my pain”. In other words, this new happiness has washed away or “undone” his past heartache. The impact of the lyrics isn’t quite matched by the song’s delivery: Casey’s vocal is solid but could have been a little more raw while his phrasing has sounded more distinctive in the live version. However, the mournful steel guitar and the contrasting bright Wurlitzer-like accents do a good job of conveying the two sides of the history being told.

“She’s Money” (stream here) is built on a theme touched on by several other songs on the album: the idea of a guy who’s broke finding what he needs in life through love. The good time vibe of the song is evident from the peppy slide guitar riffs and the acoustic licks that accent the transitions between the different parts of the song. The byplay between them is really what drives this song, though the Southern accented blue eyed soul melody is catchy on its own. Casey’s vocal has been more open and his phrasing more free flowing in live performances of this song than it is on the studio version, so there isn’t as much of a spontaneous lift on the chorus on the record. But with some cute lyrical moments like the dual purpose “our love is green” the song maintains the feel-good, likable charm of the album.

Though the romantic tracks dominate Casey’s album, the strongest tracks are actually the ones in which Casey’s living and singing on the edge. “Workin On It” (stream here) an energetic Southern rocker with little Hammond organ accents in which a man tracks his not-yet-perfect life in progress, is Casey’s strongest vocal in the album because he lends a danger-laden snarl to the forward-looking optimism of the track. It makes you hope that even when he gets what he wants (and he certainly is charming enough to), he won’t totally lose that edge. So comfortable is CaseyJ’s voice amid the rocking electric guitar work, it’s a surprise to remember this is one of the two songs on the album that he didn’t co-write (the song is cowritten by Bob DiPiero/Brandon Kinney/Daniel Tashian).

“Drive,” on the other hand, is a Casey co-write (with Brad and Brett Warren), and what he does with his most obvious hit song is an unexpected delight. After a twangy guitar intro that gives the feeling that one has entered a desolate Wild West outpost where only outlaws and perhaps a slithering rattlesnake remain, the drummer starts counting down, and Casey starts picking the dobro. Then, a train-like percussion kicks in and the song is off to the races, literally and metaphorically. “Drive” is hardly the first country song to expound on the joys of speed and the open road but the lyrics do a good job of setting the scene through lines like ‘I love to feel my worn out boots, stompin on the gas, Love to see your bare feet tapping on the dash”. The sound is predominantly rootsy with smartly chosen electric guitar accents. “Drive” sounds like a song that may have been tracked all at once by Casey and his studio band, which helps to lend it an extra feeling of spontaneity and energy. Casey’s delivery again gives you that little sense of mischief, and he occasionally punctuates phrases in this song with a “mmmhmm” or, in one case, a battle cry – these work because they sound in the moment and unplanned.

The obvious choice with a song like “Drive” would have been to record it as a hard-charging country/rock song that would fit right in between Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, and Eric Church on country radio. But Casey swerves unexpectedly with his treatment of the song, instead giving it a slightly unhinged and old school western feel. The energy of the song doesn’t suffer without the faster tempo or the full-on amped up treatment that he has often given the song in concert. The fact that he and co-producer Chris Lindsey were not satisfied simply to have a hit song on their hands and decided to do something adventurous with “Drive” is the truest expression of the fundamentally wild spirit of the song, and it says a lot about them as artists.

The urgency that makes a song like “Drive” such a great listen isn’t as apparent in “Cryin On A Suitcase”, another song that takes the listener on a fast drive. In this case, the lyrics take fast cut, cinematic approach urging someone to throw all caution and traffic rules to the wind and rush to the airport. Why? As the chorus reveals, “she’s cryin on a suitcase, sittin at the airport, waitin on an airplane bound to take her out of here”. The idea here is good: we’ve all seen those romcom movies that get resolved with a daring, foolhardy dash to the airport to intercept the love of the character’s life, and it should make for an arresting song. The melody goes from a syncopated monotone meant to express pent up intensity into an anthemic but still melancholy soft rock chorus. Though Casey does a nice job with his phrasing on the line “You better run while you still got time”, there isn’t enough story in the lyrics to justify the call to action, and the song ultimately feels overly reliant on those romcom tropes, stock phrases, and a derivative though catchy melody.

The weaker moments on the album stem from similar issues. The midtempo country rocker “Tough Love” plays on the titular phrase by saluting a relationship that has beaten the odds, which is a clever change-up. The melody is catchy enough that it would fall seamlessly into Jason Aldean’s playbook. But the verses rely too much on unexplained and overused phrases like “They said we’d never make it, they said we’d never last” and “But baby we’re still standing, we’re still going strong. So take my hand and don’t look back we’re gonna prove that they were wrong”. Casey sounds comfortable on the song and the style suits him, but he isn’t able to impose his personality on the song through his vocals and guitar work the way he does on the album’s strongest tracks.

There is also no questioning Casey’s sincerity when he sings “Love The Way You Miss Me” the loving manner in which he delivers the electric guitar work on the song to add a bluesy feeling, or the way the steel guitar helps to tie phrases together. But the song is sunk by predictable, overused, and undescriptive rhymes that don’t capture the ache of the long distance conversation and don’t fit the flow of the melody as well as the simple lyrics of a song like “So Sweet.”

That leaves us with the pensive and ethereal album closer “I Miss Your Fire”. This song represents a sudden turn away from the fulfilled and steady relationship Casey has celebrated for most of the album by serving notice that it has ended. Casey’s delivery is understated, mournful, and intense, and his voice combines with a tenderly rolling acoustic guitar to convey the hazy vibe of a depressingly still night. There’s a missed opportunity against this backdrop to let the verses provide more detailed, vivid snapshots of the relationship that was. But, the stream of consciousness flow of the song makes a verse like “Toss and turn in these sheets, you still keep me up all night. I miss the way you weren’t ashamed of the way you never closed your eyes” feel like an raw and credible outpouring from a grieving person. The track leaves the listener with the feeling that all the contentment, gratitude, and abandon in the preceding songs are all now memories, and all that’s left is a man and his lonely thoughts. It’s a memorable way to end the album.

The fact that this is Casey’s debut album and he took so much time to create it raises an obvious question: will the album be enough to get Casey a foothold at country radio and give him a foundation to build on in that genre? There are three obvious singles on the album that sound like t20 hits with strong t10 potential so the answer is yes, as long as the right singles are chosen (for this particular album the single choices seem obvious, but one never knows how a label will roll). Not only are these single choices obvious because of their catchy hooks and well-executed performances and production, but because together, they would establish a space for Casey James in the country genre that’s somewhere between Keith Urban, Eli Young Band, and James Otto and also uniquely his. No easy feat. Casey’s fit into the country genre is absolutely seamless, and as a guitar player and co-producer, Casey has done a good job of weaving steel guitar into his country/soul/blues/pop/rock songs without feeling like it’s there just for country dressing.

Though Casey did cowrite several songs that would have made for stronger album cuts than some of what is on his debut, what Casey has done is created an album that’s cohesive in sound and mood. Those who were introduced to Casey on American Idol may find the album to be less edgy than one might expect from someone so steeped in blues and rock, but those influences remain evident in his presentation even of romantic songs. Casey’s life experience and road dues are evident in his phrasing and tone, and his attention to guitar tones pays strong dividends in elevating the songs and forming an album that sounds like his and his alone. It turns out that as much attention as Casey has gotten for his hair, his guitar-picking fingers and his gravelly voice, his strongest and most distinctive feature may in fact be his ears.

Singles please: “Drive,” “So Sweet,” “Workin On It” (“Good Life” would be acceptable)
Skippers: “Love The Way You Miss Me”, “Tough Love”
Secret Muppet fantasy: Isn’t it obvious? Miss Piggy’s in a saloon, Kermit’s the sheriff, Gonzo and Fozzie are sitting at the bar, and a solemn looking Casey enters through those swinging doors. His boots have just the right amount of wear on them. He reaches back, and the whole room gasps and Kermit gulps. Except, Casey has pulled forth his guitar and starts playing the intro to “Drive”. Animal quickly joins in on drums. The Muppets gradually form a line dance to the song. Miss Piggy flirts with Casey. Casey laughs. Scene.

About Deb B 432 Articles
Also known as Windmills, I cover country music news and live televised country events, in addition to recapping ABC's 'Nashville.' Additionally, I occasionally do long-form chart analysis that has been cited by Entertainment Weekly, Pitchfork, The Guardian, The New Republic, NPR, and more.