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Days Are Mighty [Slipcase]
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  • Expatriate artist, singer, and songwriter Jeb Loy Nichols began making records to some "Americana" fanfare and press hype for Capitol Records back in 1997. He had a killer single on the Lovers Knot set called "As the Rain," which combined reggae, folk changes in a minor key, and Nichols' lovely, dry, laid-back voice with some high lonesome slide guitars and a bubbling bassline. The label even paid for a promo-only remix of the track by dubmaster Adrian Sherwood. Trouble is, everyone was looking for Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, and Abra Moore, and anyone who sounded like a "nice" version of Townes Van Zandt (someone who had gone to college, could write a half-decent song, and could entertain the large, white, "feel good about us" types who filled yuppie folk venues). The funny thing is that Nichols left Austin so he could get away from all that macho boy's-club yuppie stuff. He went to London because of his love for reggae and "lovers rock." Nichols dropped off the Yankee radar and wasn't heard from on these shores again until 2008. He never stopped making music, though; in fact, every record he released after Lovers Knot (seven) was better than its predecessor. It's obvious as to why: Nichols is not exactly obvious. He's quiet, has a lovely but uncommon voice (a dead cross between James Taylor's and a young John Martyn's), and writes gentle, poetic songs that "paint" their stories rather than announce them. He's a genteel but unpretentious sort whose songs are so intimate you could blink and they'd go right by you. They don't assert; rather, they request that you actually listen to them.
  • Days Are Mighty is another step in the songwriting development of Nichols. The first thing is the genuine surprise that, had he been signed to a label like Blue Note that goes out of its way to find pop singers who write like this, he would have been a star -- inasmuch as anyone is these days. He doesn't seem too concerned though: his effortless, beautiful song poems are as airy and as full of suggestion and gorgeous if skeletal melodies -- they need nothing extra -- as ever. At just a shade over 33 minutes, Nichols doesn't provide any padding; the tracks either work or they don't. Mostly they do, in spades. The accompaniment behind Nichols' voice and guitars is by bassist Andy Hamill, pianist Jennifer Carr (she also plays Fender Rhodes and sings backup), drummer/percussionist Jonathan Lee, and Lorriane Morley on backing vocals. Check the opener, "My Kind," where the Rhodes, hand percussion, a harmonica, a spindly wah-wah guitar line, and a warm bubbling bassline weave together the vibe of early Steely Dan, John & Beverley Martyn (if they both sang on "Solid Air"), and wispy, funky Caribbean soul. With its painterly rhymes, ringing piano tones that are covered in warmth and echo, and that strikingly clear, gentle harmonica solo, it's worth the price of the album all by itself just to play that track while driving along the beach, or on a hot, muggy summer night. The set changes up fairly radically but not jarringly with the slow blue-eyed low-voiced soul of the title track, with acoustic and Rhodes piano, a steady pulse that accents the loping, quietly grooving electric guitar, and the trio of voices -- Nichols and his backing singers affirming the small wonder of life as it unfolds day by day. Even the sadder tunes are wrapped in such relaxed -- but hardly tedious -- atmospheres that they capture the listener almost subliminally: check the cuts "Lay Down and Cry" and "25 Years Too Late." The Vince Guaraldi-esque piano intro that commences "Poor Little Barn" with only the quietest acoustic guitar offers a stunning juxtaposition of a picaresque natural scene and the kind emotional upheaval that can change a life.
  • The less pop-oriented numbers like "That's Not What She Said to Me" are so rooted in folksy old-time country that modern country wouldn't recognize them. The words, however, reflect the human condition in the 21st century. The winter waltz of "After November" brings all the above elements together in a seamless warm blanket of gray images delivered in a melody that may be spare, but is infectious and irresistible. The offbeat pop reggae in "Let's Not Fall" offset by the jazzy rhythmic softness of "Almost" sounds like the group America hanging out with the I-Threes and a relaxed Sly & Robbie. The knotty intro to the closer, "I Need You So," is deceptive because it's such an airy pop tune, with a weighty, bittersweet, almost desperate narrative that reveals the hard truth that great beauty can be found in everyday pain and suffering and loneliness. American audiences may not "get" Nichols this time around either, but that would be too bad, since this is the best recording he's issued yet. He has no gimmick, no schtick; his artful, unpretentious songwriting is accessible to virtually anyone, and is so precise in a musical sense that it is poetic and spacious without having to venture to reach very far. In other words, he's a songsmith of craft and refinement, who will continue to make records and go on following his artist's way whether you find a way to listen to him or not. But if you don't at least make the attempt to encounter him, it will be your loss that is greater; you will be deprived of a tremendous if unassuming artist who seems to offer a view of life that is so intimate and good-natured that it could be your own. [Released by Tuition in the U.K., Days Are Mighty is released through Compass in America.] ~ Thom Jurek
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