Before talking about Casey James’ lovely, well-produced If You Don’t Know By Now, let’s take a brief trip to Memphis in 1951. The Kings of Rhythm, led by a young Ike Turner, plugged in a guitar amp, only to be greeted with waves of fuzz. They realized they had damaged the amp while changing a flat tire on their way to the studio. But legendary producer Sam Phillips heard something in the noise. He stuffed some paper into the amp, which tamed the crunch just enough that artists would return to that distorted sound again and again, with the Kings of Rhythm’s “Rocket 88” considered to be the first use of distortion in music.
We love stories of accidental discoveries because they’re exciting and movie-like, with the second-act conflict setting up a happy, third act resolution. But embracing the unknown and rolling with it, which Phillips and the band did well over half a century ago, is also compelling. It’s not about the quest for flawlessness as much as it’s about the journey toward the perfect sound. Even if the sound resulted from an accidentally dropped speaker.
James’ If You Don’t Know By Now, his second album, strives for flawlessness. The album of soulful blues rock, complete with horn section, is perfectly arranged to spotlight a lovely, blues rock voice, with the right amount of grit. There are crunchy guitars and rolling organs, never a note out of place. And although James got his record contract due to his time on American Idol, there’s nothing square or stuffy about the album. It rocks and it rolls, but where Phillips and Turner were less sure where their experiments would bring them, James seems well aware of where each song will land.
The album is a generous 14 tracks and James uses the time to cover a lot of styles. “Live Life” is funky blues with horns propelling the tune. “Girl’s Got Something” is country rock a la Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Call Me the Breeze.” “A Better Place” recalls Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” “Don’t Break a Heart” also has a country energy, with a beautiful, bluesy guitar solo.
This is a well-crafted album but one that feels a bit safe. The Allman Brothers’ live At Fillmore East is a perfect album with performance mistakes that also make it memorable and exciting. The flaws are heroic challenges to conquer and celebrate. While it’s different with a studio album, where very few artists can get away with permanently committing errors to tape, James still might think about ways to take more risks, letting his fans see him sweat on the tightrope. No one wants or expects him to fall, but there’s certainly something captivating about seeing a great artist get themselves into and out of a musical jam.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Girl’s Got Something
– Don’t Break a Heart
– Have You Heard
– Live Life
The Big Hit
– Live Life
Review by Steven Ovadia