June 12, 2023

Michigan-born soul and blues singer Jan James started writing lyrics for guitarist Craig Calvert’s music over three decades ago, bringing out her first album Last Train in 1992. Relocating to Chicago, they have become stalwarts of the musical scene, and the intervening 30 years have seen the partnership produce 12 albums, culminating in this latest release, Time Bomb. James is generally billed as a blues singer, and there is certainly a lot of that influence here, but these songs to my ears drop firmly into the soul arena, heavily influenced by 1970s Motown and the pre-disco soul of such bands as The Tymes and The Delfonics. As such, there is plenty of gospel influence in there too, as is to be expected from someone who honed her vocal skills in a Michigan church choir.

Photos by Eric Gramberg and Chris Jacobs

The set opens with the gently rolling good-time groove of Swingin’ In The Sweet Sunshine, with tasteful saxophone work from Brian Gephart, and subtle piano from Bob Long. Heavily reminiscent of The Tymes’ 1975 hit Ms Grace, this sets the template for much of what is to come; the emphasis here is on uplifting and melodic, easy soul. Stronger Now displays a distinct ‘60s influence in the clear-toned, tremolo guitar intro, playing out over a tastefully-restrained guitar solo, as does the slow, triplet-timed blues of Desperate Times. The twin backing vocals of Cheryl Wilson and Joyce Fayson come across like a full gospel choir in this one, and they make their presence felt at many times during the course of the album.

Sometimes Love’s Like That is another helping of poppy, soulful, mid-tempo melody, with more of a strident tenor sax solo, but to me, the album starts to get into its stride with its longest number, the nearly 5-minute Let Love Surround You, with its springy guitar intro and gospel soul feel. Boldly fuzzy guitar chords adorn the choruses, and there’s loads going on in the background; busy rhythm guitar, tasteful piano and that gospel chorus again. Everything is thrown at this one including an unashamedly bluesy guitar solo. An 8-piece band (even with Calvert doubling on bass), includes blues harmonica player David Seman, whose contribution starts coming to the fore on the title song Time Bomb, which also bumps up the speed slightly.

The tempo comes back down for the slow, end-of-evening, triplet time blues Too Late Now, but this still builds into a country-infused soul number, while Don’t Lie To The One You Love drifts more into pop territory, with a flavour of The Zutons’ Valerie about it. Most of the songs offer an upbuilding message, even while taking their inspiration from the desperate times the world finds itself in, with only the next song spitting a little bile; Blood On Your Hands is a direct answer to the January 2021 invasion of Washington’s Capitol Building by a politically-motivated mob after Donald Trump’s electoral defeat. It’s angry stuff, (at least as far as James’ smooth, smiling vocals can ever sound angry), with a rocky rhythm and some great, overdriven harp playing from Seman.

Diamonds And Gold is the first and only song on the album to be sung in a minor key, with James giving it some really high-register singing in the intro. It’s more of a funky pop number than either soul or blues, and also far more musically complex than anything that has gone before, with the warning that “diamonds and gold will not protect you when you’re old.” Drummer Jake Loomis contributes some imaginative snare patterns to this one, a highlight of the set. The band briefly becomes a 9-piece with Bart Kamp providing bass for Love Is The Answer, another triplet-rhythmed blues, with rapid-fire hi-hat work and overdubbed guitars at the end.

Don’t it Feel Good is a bouncy soul number that does what it says on the tin, but the concluding song is undoubtedly the best on the album from where I’m sitting; Always The Blues starts on a deep wah-wah guitar rhythm, before resolving into an up-tempo funky, light rocker. Bolstered by some bluesy harp and a slightly jazzy rhythm, this would go down well live I think, and descends into a great, rocky guitar solo with loads of echo, before the album grinds to a halt at well over 50 minutes.

James’ voice is soulful and melodic throughout; Calvert’s guitar adds plenty of varied textures without ever overburdening the songs. The large band makes sure there is always plenty of interest in the background, and the whole sound is full and well-balanced. In short, it’s easy and pleasant listening.

Time Bomb by Jan James is now available from Blue Palace Records