Jim James, "Regions of Light and Sound of God" (ATO)
Hayden, "Us Alone" (Arts & Crafts)
The last My Morning Jacket album, "Circuital," suffered from an intermittent power outage, and singer-guitarist Jim James' solo debut doesn't exactly amp things up. Blessed with an alluring pinched, plaintive voice, James keeps things remarkably quiet and laid-back throughout most of the odd, meandering and occasionally prayerful "Regions of Light and Sound of God." Unlike "Circuital" and much of the My Morning Jacket catalog, though, the restless "Regions" never settles, never leans back on any laurels. It's a bit out there, and stays out there.
Given that James reportedly was hired to pen songs for last year's "Muppets" movie reboot (before Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie stepped in), and after listening to MMJ's excellent delivery of a fine selection, "Our World" from Jim Henson's underappreciated "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas," on the "Muppets: The Green Album" -- the childlike whimsy in these arrangements and the boyish wonder in the lyrics ("Good or bad / short and sweet / skip a beat / close your eyes and it's gone" he chirps in "Of the Mother Again") makes slight sense. As ephemeral as these organic tunes are -- some songs are so wispy and light one wonders if James had to be tethered in the studio to keep from floating away -- they're certainly playful. He goes skronky on a guitar solo in the middle of the George Harrison-esque "Dear One," but only for an instant. "All Is Forgiven" mixes soul and snaky Middle Eastern sounds, still without raising much of a pulse. In "A New Life," James sings, "I think I'm really being sincere" -- but he chuckles as he finishes the line. As I suspected: He's putting us on. In the end, these tunes just drift off, leaving us no good reason to give chase.
Also from the plaintive, windswept bins, however, comes the splendid surprise of "Us Alone," a new album from Toronto's Hayden. Yes, Hayden, aka Paul Hayden Desser -- he of the five minutes of alt-rock fame in 1996 for his arresting debut single "Bad as They Seem" (from "Everything I Long For"). Who knew he was still making records, but this (his seventh) is pretty much a triumph of soft-spoken, plains-born hope and doom. Hayden's voice is lazy and free-floating like James', but drier, dustier, like he's drowning in quicksand. Songs shuffle slowly, a snare drum occasionally startles because of its infrequency, guitars whisper and the lap steel moans from distances it's difficult to achieve in mere studio recording. He's commented recently about making much of this album upstairs at night while his daughter slept, but go back through Hayden's catalog -- his narratives are almost always this eerily quiet and reluctant, like Mark Kozelek strumming on eggshells. Only the ballad "Blurry Nights," a morning-after duet with gossamer-voiced singer-songwriter Lou Canon, cranks things up to seven.
"Us Alone" triumphs as a deeply personal statement. He swears off his "Old Dreams." He stares death down in the gripping 11-minute closer, "Instructions." He loses himself in reverie for "Oh Memory," a stunning, molasses-slow hymn backed by distant neighborhood fireworks. He looks back on those golden '90s for the harmonica 'n' piano-driven "Almost Everything" while explaining his soft touch, both personally and sonically: "I'm recording once again / while my kid is upstairs in bed / and I'll admit that now and then / some nights when I'm strumming or maybe just drumming / music is still everything / Well, almost everything." Deserving of one more crank of the ol' hype machine.