Album review: Cautionary Tales by Harmony James

In all the realms of Australian country music, there is really no one like Harmony James. When her self-funded, independently released debut album Tailwind arrived in 2009, it announced a singer-songwriter whose heart was bleedingly open yet who remained shy – rather than coy – of all those who could see the wound. Here was someone who declared her insecurities along with her dreams and still found whimsy in the world. Her voice contained echoes of a yodel and country music traditions. She was an old-fashioned girl – musically and otherwise.

James’s second album, Handfuls of Sky, still had that open heart but it was a more obviously commercial effort, and in places it seemed that James was trying to be ‘modern’ – whatever that means. The album sounded more like a collection of songs than a body of work – by any measure it was a very good album, but it wasn’t Tailwind.
Cautionary Tales is James’s newly released third album, and it ventures closer to her first than her second. Where Tailwind immediately captivated a listener, though, Cautionary Tales is, well … cautious. That heart is there, for sure – and some of the stories in these songs contain all sorts of heartbreak: a dead child, lost love, dreams turned to dust. But it sounds as though James is more wary of letting us see that heart than she was on Tailwind. Perhaps now she knows the consequences of being so exposed. Or perhaps she just wants us to prove that we really want to know what she has to tell us – because repeated listening of this album really pays off. It’s only once we’re familiar with these songs that we can hear the nuances of what she’s done: the light and shade in the lyrics; the slight tremolo in her voice that tells us more about what she’s singing than the lyrics ever could; the power in her voice right when she needs it. 
So when I say that there’s no one like Harmony James, it’s because of these layers of meaning and emotion. The closest comparison – not in musical style but in terms of what they bring to the world – is Kasey Chambers. Chambers is an emotional singer and an emotional songwriter, and both women have the sound of someone who is playing for all the marbles – and not at all sure that she’ll win them, but willing to do it anyway and let the consequences be what they are. That is courage in an artist. Harmony James showed this courage when she first released Tailwind and she’s showing it again now. And quite apart from that, she’s a wonderful songwriter. 
Cautionary Tales by Harmony James is out now through Warner Music Australia,

Harmony James is touring to support the album release:
8 August 2014
Rooty Hill RSL, NSW
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest Pete Denahy
9 August 2014
Mittagong RSL
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest Pete Denahy
10 August 2014
Mudgee Brewing Company
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest Pete Denahy
14 August 2014
Camelot Lounge, Marrickville
Harmony James with special guest Peter Denahy
15 August 2014
Lizotte’s Dee Why
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest  Pete Denahy
16 August 2014
Lizottes Central Coast
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest  Pete Denahy
17 August 2014
Lizotte’s Newcastle
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest Pete Denahy
29 August 2014
Gympie Music Muster
4 September 2014
Hallam Hotel, Victoria
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest Pete Denahy
5 September 2014
Bairnsdale RSL
Harmony James with Luke O’Shea and special guest Peter Denahy

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