By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Not since the days when Bruce Springsteen gave up opening for Anne Murray to cut his debut album has a solo artist working in the pure American rock genre packed onto a piece of vinyl as much emotional force, social insight, heartfelt passion, and lyrical literacy as Will T. Massey does on his eponymous major-label debut. Except Vinnie James on his concurrent national premiere, All American Boy.
Producer Thom Panunzio, a specialist in wedding newly signed acts to studio recordings (he worked on Nuclear Valdez's initial effort for Epic), boarded James and Massey, sharing duties with Roy Bittan on the Massey project. Besides being a casual, easygoing, down-to-earth person, Panunzio is among the sharpest producers in the business. "The way I work," he says, "is that I'm not a dictator. I come in and just help the artist do what he does."
In these two cases, he's helped portend the future of the world's most important musical form. High praise, however, sets high expectations. "It's what someone thinks about me," Vinnie James says of loved-it reviews. "They coulda said something else!" He laughs, then adds, "When you meet a girl and like her for a certain reason, you start going out, and then maybe you want her to wear make-up all the time or something, and you forget why you started going out with her in the first place. I think it's the same thing. This is just me, doing what I've been doing for a long time. If I'm walking along, and someone says I have nice shoes, I'm still just walking along, doing what I do."
With All American Boy, James presents a rocking case for a repainting of the North American social canvas. The album scalpels self-deception, bigotry, freedom. In "Hey Geronimo," an acoustic-guitar- and percussion-driven head buster with forceful vocals, James, instead of simply lamenting the Native American holocaust of the 1800s, reminds listeners that the unpardonable abuses heaped on Indians haven't ended yet. "I see your turquoise ain't it covered up with blood/I see your silver eagle face down in the mud/Maybe in a hundred years the people will be free/Maybe in a hundred years they'll forget your `wounded knee'," he sings, later delivering a verse in the Apache language. James does not fall for the novice mistake of singing his meaningful songs at people; instead he chooses mature points of view, such as this third-person entry: "The hawk and the sparrow and the wolf and the buffalo/Wanted you to know/The hawk and the sparrow and the wolf and the buffalo/Refuse to go."
With songs such as "Black Money," a haunting portrait of dope's damage done and the greed that feeds off "the pain in a smack junkie's eyes," and "Here Goes Tomorrow," a deceptively simple arrangement of lyrics that condemn environmental destruction from the perspective of the world's children, the singer does risk painting himself into a politically correct corner. "It's on my mind," James says of the issues he quarterbacks. "I'm not telling anyone anything. `What makes you so special to bring us this information?' If the world changes, what a great thing. But it's not me doing that. If someone suggested I was a savior or a rock messiah, I'd say, `No I'm not. But you are.' Musicians are entitled to an opinion. And we might have experiences that make an opinion more valid. If I see someone get shot, I have an opinion about that."
And James has had experiences. In fact, he and Will T. Massey each hit the road long before they had the opportunity to hit the charts. At age fourteen James began penning poems, and thumbing rides, backpacking, and hoboing to places he hadn't seen. Two years later he began playing guitar at various college campuses on his unmapped route. Years of bouncing back and forth, often by hopping freights, from Alaska to Seattle to Mexico, where he worked at a relief orphanage for a time, inform the broad view of his complex, compelling material. Two All American tracks seem to draw their inspiration from the decadent evil of Lost Angeles itself. In the gentle, swaying "Little Angel," for example, James, supported by Al Kooper's grooving keyboards, leaves details and specifics to the listener's imagination, but nonetheless creates what could be the soundtrack for any runaway caught in Hollywood Boulevard's web of lust: "This side of heaven/There's this town they call in between and/Care must be taken/To keep your halo clean/Angels can fall/Right on outta grace/Where they stare out into a world/That no little angel is ready to face."
Producer Thom Panunzio attributes the refreshing power and depth of the James album to in-the-studio exchanges. Another top boardman, T-Bone Burnett, was slated to produce the project. That didn't pan out, and Panunzio was surprised to learn the day before studio work was to begin that no preproduction had been completed. The lack of a recorded foundation created a situation that, Panunzio says, "was more spontaneous, more experimental. There was nothing in stone, we just let the band play the songs. I had ideas, Vinnie had ideas. I went into the studio not knowing what we wanted to do with these songs."