From the Top of Willamette Mountain may lose some steam in its genre-hopping, but when it's good it's great.
In "Mystic", the forest-echoing opener to From the Top of Willamette Mountain, Nebraska-born Joshua James sounds as if he's aspiring not for an authentic take on Americana—the kind his press materials wax rustic about—but instead the hundred-bucks-a-ticket stadium folk of Mumford and Sons. The way each note of the acoustic guitar seems to resound for miles, heightening the sense of distance James' music is meant to evoke, is a direct mirror to the ever-popular British troupe. The oversaturation of songwriters yearning for an Old America sensibility in modern indie music—where the music is pastoral as the shirts are plaid— means that songwriters like James, however talented they may be, face one hell of an uphill battle. Wannabe Bon Ivers and Fleet Foxes all across the States have been mostly unsuccessful in reinventing the hipster-baiting wheel, and in this opening song it seems that James will suffer that same fate.
But even in "Mystic"—for all its similarities to the Nickelback of Folk—James doesn't ever appear to be the sellout type. The generic universality of Mumford and Sons is such that it's quite easy for anyone good or bad to sound like them. And, sure enough, when lead single and second track "Queen of the City" kicks in, dismissing James as a clone is out of the question. "Queen of the City" recalls not Mumford but rather indie songster Eef Barzelay, and the focus of the song is not the echoey timbre of the acoustic guitar but rather the marvelous chorus hook. As if that weren't enough of a 180, the immediately following barroom piano of "Surrender" changes things up even more. Within the first three tracks of From the Top of Willamette Mountain, James clearly wants to be perceived as a chameleon, albeit one with a strong rootsy appeal, the kind that even well-reputed folksters like Justin Vernon have a hard time getting.
These genre transitions aren't the kind that lead to whiplash; though there's a distinct sonic difference in each case, they aren't so removed from each other as to be uneven jigsaw pieces. James doesn't sound like he's in the midst of an identity crisis. He does, however, sound like he's trying to take tiny little slices out of the many genres that appeal to him. He wisely doesn't go for anything so out there that he overshoots his aim, but he does distract from the successful moments of From the Top of Willamette Mountain. The mixture of Americana, folk, and indie on cuts like "Queen of the City" and "Sister" are the album's best moments; comparatively, however, the tracks that stand out as most different like "Surrender" or the boilerplate mountain man folk of "Doctor, Oh Doctor" and "Feel the Same" aren't as strong. James is comfortable in the persona of the young but wizened country dweller with a guitar and a head full of soul-searching lyrics, but at the same time his sonic palette is vibrant enough that he need not limit himself to the popular tropes of folk songwriting.
Yet if the biggest complaint about From the Top of Willamette Mountain is that it could have been tightened up a bit more, it's safe to say that James is an impressive songwriter, a considerable skill to have given how easy it is to churn out singer/songwriter folk these days. Rather than buying into the simplistic city vs. country narratives that rootsy music so often does, James synthesizes the two, weaving genres together into a sonic tapestry that suggests life is a mix of the log cabin and the one-bedroom loft, the resident of "Willamette Mountain" and the "Queen of the City". The world of Joshua James is one of a life examined in all of its paradoxes and challenges; it's actually quite a beautiful place to be.