Blues and indie rock are always tough to sell because there are so many acts in each genre fighting for the attention of fans. James Tillman is part of a rare breed who just want to make music for the love of it and to tell stories to fans in an intimate setting. Watching Tillman opening for Tune-Yards displayed two very important thoughts in my brain; he is incredibly real and has a passion for music. Between always interacting with the crowd and giving small explanations for each track, it is clear he really loves to share the musical experience with all those around him. The sense of purpose of that performance comes through equally strong on this short EP as well.
The aesthetic Tillman works with is pretty basic. There is a lounge music atmosphere present from the light guitars, drums, and bass coating every small and intimately written track. Tillman is a solid guitar player, sullenly performing songs to a point where it could be a thrilling lullaby. His voice is strong as well, utilizing low-pitched notes that are held for long periods sticking true to the blues formula he occupies. Despite not sounding like a new act or bringing something incredibly special to the medium, the authenticity is at too high of a level to deny artistically. Being able to come off as a real person on stage and recording is hard to do, and Tillman performs this skill in spades.
Despite only being twenty minutes of music, Shangri La has plenty of good moments. “Love Within” kicks off the record with intimate lyrics about trying to find love, with hope as the main lead along with solid bass and lead guitars backing up the track. “And Then” has a much stronger blues vibe with simple bass and drum lines. The beautiful lyrics about finding love and yourself are realistic from beginning to end, but the best song is easily the title track though. “Shangri La” is a bit more funky and fast-paced. The soft lead vocals of Tillman mix well with the chorus adding depth at points, along with a sense of hope and love that create a strong relationship track.
There is one shortcoming throughout though. Despite all of the great writing that Tillman pulls off with each small and fragile chorus, the held notes can be a bit distracting throughout. It is well known that vocals on blues records are not typically the focal point and Tillman is solid, but some songs drone on longer that they should at the end. Most of the songs feel as if they are written for three solid minutes, but each song has more time added due to the long vocal segments that hurt the flow of a few songs. To be fair though, those segments fit extremely well on “And Then” and “Shangri La” displaying that the idea can come off compelling when done tastefully.
James Tillman is an artist that could become a strong indie blues act in the near future. It is always hard to find the ones that are truly authentic in a major label driven music world, and Tillman fits in the vein of a Jack White type. Tillman has some slight problems with holding notes a bit too long, making songs lose flow at moments, but the authenticity and soothing instrumentals are well worth any blues fan’s time.
1. Love Within
2. And Then
4. Shangri La
5. Bonus Track