Al James is a man scorned. Violence in the Snowy Fields, the second release from the Portland-area singer/songwriter, is, at times, delightfully tongue-in-cheek, but for the majority of its 40 minutes it’s painfully honest and desperately obsessive. The opener “The Search” sounds traditional enough, aligning itself clearly with Neil Young and the followers early ‘70s country rock, but lyrically it boasts a disquieting amount of brimstone. For three verses, mystically biblical prophecies containing mentions of precious stones and birds of prey are contrasted with the “fear of the Lord” in the search for wisdom and understanding. This kind of morbid proselytizing creates an odd tension for the listener, who’s unfortunately left torn somewhere between a front porch hum-along and taking cover from the wrath of God.
Similarly, the title track is vintage Harvest-era Neil complete with crunchy electric guitar. But again James’s gothic religious impulses quickly come to bear. He lets us know that in the end St John will reveal all things like, for instance, the “violence in the snowy fields.” After that the hoof beats start pounding and James tell us that he may go down in flames but he won’t burn. Neil used to sing about pickups and leaving and fields and L.A. and, to tell you the truth, it’s a lot more palatable to those us who put our faith in the secular world of record-listening.
The centerpiece of this tension is “The Righteous Shall Destroy the Precious”. Here, the narrator comes down out of the hills to have his day. He enters the white buildings full of God’s children where his brothers lurk coldly. This is evidently really bad because some chaff gets burned. All this drama compounded by the slow, ominous strum of electric guitar and time kept on the ride. Somebody’s king once was their slave. Then there’s whistling. I have to admit that I’m somewhat lost at this point. And, well, it all seems a bit much, really.
And if it’s not one thing with James it’s another. On “My Grey Life” James declares an angry grudge against an ex-lover with the line, “I believe in second chances for everyone but you.” But the record isn’t all duck-and-cover. “Dying in Time” is a clever take on the sincerity of ‘70s gold ala Bread. Its quivering strings, silver guitars, and mellow organs lend grace to the comically sentimental refrain of “Baby, let’s die at the same time.” Hey, and I’m right there with him when he sings, “May it not be by avalanche, may it not by hurricane.” There are several quietly intimate moments of finger-picked confession, the best of which is the album’s closer, “In the Fall”. And “To Destruction” is probably the album’s best and most straight-forward track. James sounds comfortable singing a beautiful love song and is well-accompanied by a lovely shuffle of steel guitar and piano. It makes you wish he didn’t waste so much damn time straining for gravity.