Robin James - Saint Jude
In those doomsday sci-fi novels where a cataclysmic event instantly wipes out 2/3rds of the world’s population, the rest of civilization are then thrown back to a primitive Medieval way of life: no electricity, no cars, no planes, no Tescos, and certainly no i-Tunes. It’s hunting and gathering for you and travelling around on horseback (unless you have to eat it to keep from starving). And if you’re lucky enough to find an old acoustic guitar in the rubble you might be able to keep the music alive as well.
If you did manage find one and you got together with the other survivors, slow-roasting your former more of transportation around the camp fire, it might sound like Saint Jude, the debut album from London performer Robin James.
After listening to full-on, no holds-barred, no expense spared, glossy, slick albums, the opening chords of title track ‘St. Jude’ can be a bit disconcerting, like seeing someone naked for the first time. Once you get past the Smeagol-like vocals, the haunting and beautiful songs - perfectly suited to James’ weird and wonderful voice - weave their spell. “I said a prayer to Saint Jude the patron saint of the hopeless cause / I said ‘hey Jude, na na na na na na na na na…’”
Many artists come out with a shout where as ‘St. Jude’ is a whisper, and it makes you want to listen all the more closely, straining your ears to pick up every nuance, every word, every sigh. One man, one guitar and one microphone. Many performers would be daunted by such austerity, but James’ music thrives on it. Take the fragile beauty of ‘Postcard’; “I have a postcard in my pocket / that I can’t throw away / ‘Cause sometimes a photo is stronger / than a cold Irish day.” The simple guitar playing and James’ soft hushed vocals give the song more depth and feeling than any amount of expensive production possibly could. The guitar in ‘Alive That’s All’ keeps time like a heartbeat while James’ breathy delivery sounds both urgent and resigned. A song about forgetting the details and relishing the moment, it is a quiet treaty to the simple life, no doubt inspired by James’ recent move from London to Yorkshire; “I don’t know why I‘m singing this song / I’m not sure that I should / All I know is I’m not here for long / I’m alive and that’s all.”
The 10 tracks that make up the album all feel like diary entries, personal and internalized responses to living in chaotic and impersonal London. ‘Lie Down’ is a cry for help “Won’t you help me move / I’m under siege / Won’t you give me a cue / that helps me be me”, while ‘Go To The Water’ sounds like very dubious advice for coping with isolation; “When you are lonesome / go to the waters / the sea is broken / she will listen / you will know...”
‘Going Blind’ is James’ reaction to living in The Big Smoke; “Hold my hand is what I said / the underground is in my head / I’ve heard it’s beat it’s hard to leave / but my mother’s streets are killing me / and I need to go.” ‘Van Gogh’ is one tortured artist offering advice to another, it’s dark humour almost missed amongst the sombre lyrics; “Excuse me sir / Mr. Van Gogh / why did you / cut your ear off?” Even the moody James finds Van Gogh’s rather drastic reaction to a bad mood a bit much; “ ‘Cause I feel alone / and a knife is near /but that’s no excuse / to cut off your ear.”
Throughout the record James freely admits that he is not sure what he is doing , or why, and it is this sincerity and honesty that helps make the songs so endearing. “I’m not sure how a love song sings” warbles James but he gives it a go anyway, and it’s all the more charming for it. The upbeat (well, for James anyway) ‘Rag Doll Girl’ sounds like it was recorded in the middle of an empty church and James’ vocals seem ghostly and lost, and the final track, ‘Lullaby’ would be a rather scary thing to sing to a child, (unless you were holding a scythe) but is beautiful nonetheless; “Go to sleep now baby / I’m losing marbles daily / go to sleep now baby.”
Saint Jude will not mow you over, it will not rock your world. It needs patience and time to let the 10 subtle tracks, and Robin James’ odd, disconcerting voice, to work it’s magic on you. In today’s world where if things don’t happen in 30 seconds or less then it’s taking too long, it might do us good to slow down and enjoy some honest, homespun music for a change.