James Bay is a 24 year old singer-songwriter for whom England has gone absolutely mental. He's part of the same wave that has included Hozier and George Ezra. He was the runner up in BBC's annual 'Sound of 2015'. And he's been touring America rather relentlessly of late. We too are threatening to lose our minds.
And we should. He's an immense talent who has what it takes to conquer radio, TV/film, and perhaps a North American award show or two. He's young and looks sharp with his leather jacket, dark locks, and trademark fedora; plus, he can really sing. His voice is soulful with impressive range and just a hint of the rough stuff. Unfortunately for Bay, his highly anticipated debut Chaos and The Calm does him no favors. It is, sasdly, a bland bowl of microwaved oatmeal when you woke up craving something divine...which is a shame. We were really craving this one.
Judging by the title of the album's opener - conveniently titled, "Craving" - so was he. It's got a solid beat and forward momentum, and it sees Bay walking around his hometown, taking stock of the tiny town's (we presume) inhabitants, knowing something big is coming. And he is absolutely belting it ("Yes I'm craving, craving, craving something I can feel!"). It's stirring, really...and then so much of the album is not.
Bay recorded Chaos and The Calm in Nashville with producer Jacquire King. Considering the amount of people credited as a 'composer' on the album (I count 11), King is a young, impressionable songwriter's worst nightmare...a producer who packs his tunes so tightly there is no room for the nuances of natural talent to flourish. Take "If You Ever Want To Be In Love", for example. The idea here is Fleetwood Mac ...with its jumpy bassline and driving drums -- "Dreams", most likely -- but with so much Nashville riffage and a weird gospel-ly vocal swell in the background, the result is just...hokey. There's also a lot of weird Southern bar band vibes going on as well...the rippin' guitar on "Best Fake Smile" and "Collide" being the biggest offenders. I didn't pick up this album wanting to hear face melting, electric guitar.
Chaos and The Calm is not a complete loss though; there are a few moments where Bay is at his best. His voice is front and center, and he's not competing with overwhelming instrumentation. It's just Bay, his guitar, and maybe some sparse accompaniment -- "Let It Go", for example, or the first few moments of "Hold Back The River" and "Scars". Amazingly, it's during these moments, when the emotion is palpable, that there is any evidence of Chaos. All of which is a shame because in these moments Bay has what it takes....someone done messed up.
This past November, Bay opened for Hozier on a stage that now seems laughably small for either musician to be on. He was an absolute bundle of energy and charisma, hyped up on the last night of his North American tour and showing off his brand new Knicks cap (God bless...). With minimum accompaniment (a little keys, some tapping rhythms on a cajon); he absolutely sold his songs to a room full of Americans who had probably never heard them. They were in love. There will obviously be plenty more nights like that one for this young singer-songwriter. But he'd be so much better served by knocking his producers out of the way on the next record. Until then, skip the stream and just find a way to see him live.