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Oliver James Releases The Hardest Part

The Hardest Part is a four-song EP released by songwriter and artist Oliver James and his band members Brett Levine, James Sampson, Paul Backes, John Cartmill, Rich Rushton and Rick Slinkard. Behind the scenes, James has a full partnership with keyboardist/songwriter Brett Levine, sharing lyric and music writing duties while also producing the songs themselves. James’ songwriting focus is to create “songs that touch people and come from a real place.” The cover of this album contains a striking painting of a reclining woman, and a quick look at his discography shows all his covers to be highly artistic and memorable. “The Hardest Part” features Lennonesque strummed acoustic guitars with a cello providing the melody, very much reminiscent of Tim Scott’s playing for Harry Chapin. James’ vocals have the hushed, sincere feel of David Gilmour. The overall texture is very much a wall of sound, reaching back to the psychedelic era with synths that sound like classic mellotrons. The construction of the verses feel like a continuing cycling between two chords, with the cello taking the lead melodies that might normally go to the guitars. The final third of the song emphasizes percussion and harmony vocals. All together it’s a slightly eerie but compelling dream pop stew. “Still Holding My Breath” strips away the wall of sound for a more “discrete” mix of shimmering acoustic guitar, dreamy pedal steel, bass and sharp-as-a-tack percussion. In the broadest sense this track feels like country rock, but also touches on early ‘70s Rolling Stones or even the countryfied Byrds. The lead vocals take centerstage, eventually surrounded by organ, chiming piano and even staccato strings, with the pedal steel continuing to float in and around the proceedings. Like the first track, thematically this song concerns a love that’s so scorchingly hot that it’s actually dangerous, somewhat in the realm of “Ring of Fire.” At seven minutes you can call this a mini epic, with the kind of arrangement that more than justifies its length. Effortlessly dramatic, this track creates a spell I can’t quite recreate with words. There’s even a charming “classical” coda. “Wait For Me” starts with picked acoustics and sweet harmony vocals, with a backing accordion that can’t help but conjure the pasta dinner scene from “Lady and The Tramp.” The acoustic lead break interweaves beautifully with the picked backing. It’s a shorter, simpler song with a hopeful, upbeat message about love and waiting. “A Different Kind of Pain” telegraphs its psychedelic intentions from the very start, with a backward guitar and cymbal fade-in that moves right into Lennon’s “Magical Mystery World” with maybe a side of Brian Wilson. You’ve got the marching-style piano chords, the mellotron-like synths, the processed vocals and Ringo-style drums. Some of the backing vocals are bathed in phasing. Halfway through there’s an orchestral explosion complete with trilling soprano vocalists and expansive strings. If you can accept the tribute (and I do, because almost every band I love does a track like this at least once) you’ll be totally on board before the “Penny Lane” Bach Trumpet appears toward the end. Overall this is quite a diverse collection for an EP, with a lot of ambition packed into a relatively short running time. Recommended!

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