Jim James Revisits Retro Pop Songs on ‘Tribute To 2’

From the jam band front man of My Morning Jacket to a solid solo artist singer Jim James has continued to make music from a variety of perspectives. His newest release, “Tribute To 2” is still from his own perspective, but this time from the catalogues of his idols. From The Beach Boys to Bob Dylan, James explores interpretations of a slew of retro covers that he says reflect the modern era in their own individual way.

The opening tune from The Beach Boys, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” finds James wallowing in the sorrow that Brian Wilson so profoundly expressed back in ’66. Not surprisingly too, his voice fits well within the range of Wilson’s signature falsetto. The song almost moves in slow motion as a string arrangement lays the foundation while various horns peter in and out of ear shot. They all crescendo, however, in the closing moments with James repeating the chorus and humming into an eventual fade-out. This song, James says, is one he identifies with. In fact, each song has a special place in his heart. “They all are (personal to me), at different times,” he explained in a recent interview with Billboard. He goes on to describe how the Abbey Lincoln cover “The World is Falling Down” is one with which he identifies most. Sonically, this may be the most interesting on the whole record. “I wanted it to sound like it was falling apart,” he says, “Speeding up and slowing down, warped and distorted.” He nailed it, too. There’s odd distortions in his voice, cracklings in the recording and ominous, yet elegant backgrounds sound. In a similar vein, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” shows James doing his best Bob Dylan. Where Dylan’s version felt more pop-oriented, even tropical, James takes to it with the twang of country music in his voice.

Love songs abound on “2.” The somber “Funny How Time Slips Away” delves into love lost. Sonically, it’s full of vocal reverb and terrific guitar picking from James himself. When Willie Nelson wrote the song back in 1961, country singer Billy Walker took to its recording with ease and out came an instant classic; one subsequently covered by the likes of Elvis Presley and Al Green. James picks up where they left off, yet his version is minimalist and infinitely gloomier. Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man” too wishes well on a man whose luck is more than that of the songwriter, while “Blues Skies” from Irving Berlin finds James in a more self-assured mindset through playful, gypsy guitar riffs.  

James’ pension for covers no doubt stems from My Morning Jacket’s live shows where they’ve covered everyone from Prince, to Black Sabbath, to Bruce Springsteen. Choose any random live performance on YouTube and you’ll walk away stunned by James’ vocal capacity. Take the ending to one of their most popular tunes “Wordless Chorus” where his arranges these astounding “Oohs” and “Aahs,” seemingly on the fly. “Tribute To 2” just stands to show his range even more so. He avoids mimickery and parody, but instead finds a way to pay homage. This album proves his capacity as a true modern-day cover artist.

Tribute To 2 is available Dec. 8 on Apple Music.