Elana James: Black Beauty

The Hot Club of Cowtown fiddler Elana James makes it a point to let her folk flag shine high and mightily on Black Beauty.

Elana James

Black Beauty

Label: Snarf
US Release Date: 2015-02-24
UK Release Date: 2015-02-24
Artist website

Primarily known for her work with the western swing trio the Hot Club of Cowtown, frontwoman and fiddler Elana James has made it a point to let her folk flag shine high and mightily in her solo debut, Black Beauty. Beyond that, James has been eager to show a substantial nod towards innovation in ways that would have been otherwise unfathomable to new listeners expecting a straight Americana album and faithful Cowtown followers alike. Offering her gently discordant vocals to the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple”, James gives the benevolent rock staple a countrified intonation. Meanwhile, on “Hey Beautiful: Last Letter From Iraq”, she creates a lilting traditional folk soundscape around the actual final letter home of US Army Staff Sgt. Juan Campos, who’d died in 2007 while serving.

It’s in these moments of warmth which James best suits her idiosyncratic vocal stylings too. Her vocals are enough to cradle even the most despondent baby to sleep, even if, conversely, her gentle delivery may not be for everyone. This is why James’ sensual delivery of the gypsy track “Who Loves You More” is almost as astounding as the level of effervescence placed into her violin on the lively roots composition “Eva’s Dance”. The fullest extent of James’ freedom on Black Beauty is perhaps best perceived when listening to her exotic instrumental cover of Azerbaijani folk song “Ayrilliq”, which, by all means, is a spectacle to behold.

James also offers listeners her own interpretations of American folk staples, like Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and Woody Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby”. While not as viscerally affecting as the source material, given heightened production values and the distinction of James’ angelic tone as compared to the earthy twang of a Dylan or Guthrie, they are enjoyable, listenable versions of the songs that are done up with respect. It’s James’ skills as a violinist which make the entirety of Black Beauty shine, adding a hefty dosage of individualistic personality to the aforementioned cover songs and placing further musical stock into original compositions.

Though Black Beauty is billed as a James’ solo venture, she is still offered backup by her Cowtown compadres Whit Smith and Jake Erwin, as well as other featured guests such as Cindy Cashdollar and Erik Hokkannen, on certain tracks. Hokkannen in particular offers some great, effortless classic country guitar picking to the before-mentioned “Eva’s Dance”, whereas Cashdollar offers her dobro, steel guitar, and Weisenborn guitar on album-closer “Waltz of the Animals”. Lyrically, Black Beauty is sound, with its best moments being had in true respect and admiration of traditional western music and all of its ins and outs, and with a few standouts for James, as well, such as in the emotional “Hey, Beautiful” letter which she had written a composition around.

All in all, Black Beauty is a fine first showing for what James can do on her own. Sometimes it’s a little too sweet, or a little too melodically straightforward, so it won’t go inviting the Americana-unhinged any further towards the front door entrance, but for genre diehards, it is a sonic treat.





Nazis, Nostalgia, and Critique in Taika Waititi's 'Jojo Rabbit'

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze with Jojo Rabbit: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves.


Why I Did Not Watch 'Hamilton' on Disney+

Just as Disney's Frozen appeared to deliver a message of 21st century girl power, Hamilton hypnotizes audiences with its rhyming hymn to American exceptionalism.


LA Popsters Paper Jackets Deliver a Message We Should Embrace (premiere + interview)

Two days before releasing their second album, LA-based pop-rock sextet Paper Jackets present a seemingly prescient music video that finds a way to ease your pain during these hard times.


'Dancing After TEN' Graphic Memoir Will Move You

Art dances with loss in the moving double-memoir by comics artists Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing After TEN.


Punk Rock's WiiRMZ Rage at the Dying of the Light on 'Faster Cheaper'

The eight songs on WiiRMZ's Faster Cheaper are like a good sock to the jaw, bone-rattling, and disorienting in their potency.


Chris Stamey Paints in "A Brand-New Shade of Blue" (premiere + interview)

Chris Stamey adds more new songs for the 20th century with his latest album, finished while he was in quarantine. The material comes from an especially prolific 2019. "It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time," he says.


Willie Nelson Surveys His World on 'First Rose of Spring'

Country legend Willie Nelson employs his experience on a strong set of songs to take a wide look around him.


Gábor Lázár Is in Something of a Holding Pattern on 'Source'

Experimental electronic artist Gábor Lázár spins his wheels with a new album that's intermittently exciting but often lacking in variety.


Margo Price Is Rumored to Be the New Stevie Nicks

Margo Price was marketed as country rock because of her rural roots. But she was always more rock than country, as one can hear on That's How Rumors Get Started.


DMA'S Discuss Their Dancier New Album 'The Glow'

DMA'S lead-singer, Tommy O'Dell, discusses the band's new album The Glow, and talks about the dancier direction in their latest music.


The Bacon Brothers Deliver Solemn Statement With "Corona Tune" (premiere + interview)

Written and recorded during the 2020 quarantine, "Corona Tune" exemplifies the Bacon Brothers' ability to speak to the gravity of the present moment.


Garage Rockers the Bobby Lees Pay Tribute to "Wendy" (premiere)

The Bobby Lees' "Wendy" is a simmering slice of riot 'n' roll that could have come from the garage or the gutter but brims with punk attitude.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.