James Leva,
'Til I Know
(Copper Creek, 2004)

It is easy to hear this as a "divorce album" in the vein of Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Richard Thompson's Hand of Kindness. In fact, the first song, "Didn't See the Rope," with its shockingly bitter metaphor, could hardly be more Thompsonesque: "Ties that bind/Cries that blind/Trying to cope/I didn't see the rope."

Not all that long ago, James Leva was the musical and marital partner of Carol Elizabeth Jones, with whom he recorded a CD or two. Though the two were undeniably gifted and rooted musicians, the original material that comprised the bulk of the recordings was, in my hearing, dull and undistinguished.

Jones (with current musical partner Laurel Bliss) and Leva now record separately for the mostly bluegrass/old-time label Copper Creek. 'Til I Know, neither bluegrass nor old-time, is an agreeable excursion into a country/folk sound nicely balanced between traditional and modern approaches. Leva's writing (he composed nearly everything here) is better than I remembered it; or, more likely, it's improved because he appears less focused on penning Nashville hits and more on actually saying something. That said, his "It Must Be Good" is as inane a ditty as one could hear on, if one were unfortunate enough to be within hearing distance of it, mainstream country radio, where these days the skies are always blue and love is always true.

Fortunately, the other cuts are made of sturdier stuff. In addition, Leva happens to be an excellent fiddler, guitarist and banjo picker, and he is backed by an acoustic band that superbly complements him. Vocally, his reach sometimes exceeds his grasp (in that regard "Didn't See the Rope" is probably not the most judiciously chosen opening cut), but his singing is generally serviceable. You don't listen to this kind of music, after all, for vocal perfection.

Not all of the songs are outstanding, but with the exception just noted, I doubt many listeners will find any unwelcome or unsatisfying. My favorite cut -- I suspect just about every listener will be drawn to it -- is the Cajun-flavored and tradition-derived "Baby-O." It's the sunniest moment here, but this is not a depressing or unduly personal album. "Lost Moon" is appropriately dark, yet moving in the way those gloomy old mountain laments that inspired it are. The title tune, the only cut that takes the listener out of Southern traditions, evokes the feeling of Mali folk music, with pleasing results.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 3 September 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.