The Shoreworld manages to cover many different performers, acts, and writers throughout the tri-state area. This week’s column reviews the latest work of singer-songwriter Shayfer James. James released a new EP titled Hope and A Hand Grenade. A dramatic and diverse mix of captivating tunes, he seamlessly weaves between soft-spoken ballads and up-tempo social anthems. Combining dark, poetic lyrics and swaggering melodies, James enamors audiences in an emotional and moving performance.
Hope And A Hand Grenade comes as Shayfer James’ seventh studio release, showcasing his ongoing growth as a singer-songwriter. His music provides a unique blend of charming unconventionality; bright pop melodies are interwoven with gothic-tinged lyrics and emotive vocals, all delivered with a splash of whiskey humor, smart quip, and air of dark charm. Applauded for his live theatrical performances, James keeps audiences on their feet, with a hint of mystery and surprise.
“I went into the production of this EP with a totally open mind,” James shared. “I worked with producer/mixer/engineer and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Gillespie, who has been one of my closest friends for ten years. I trust him with all my heart. Jeremy knows me and understands my artistic approach and arrangements in a way that I think a lot of independent artists can only hope for. He also thinks I’m out of my mind, which is a bonus.” Known for his masterful piano work, James challenged himself on this latest release. “I love the piano, but it had started to bore me a bit last year, so I shifted my focus toward electric guitar. I recruited Corby Hewson on drums, who performed on all my previous recordings, Caitlin Gray on bass, as well as T. Fortuna on percussion. Jeremy and I played everything else, other than the viola on ‘Crack A Bottle, Run A Bath,’ which was performed by Peter Horn.” The EP was mixed and primarily recorded at Mike Ferretti’s Self-Titled Studios, with additional tracking at Magic Door Recording and Kaleidoscope Sound. It was mastered by Kim Rosen at Knack Mastering. James concluded, “Recording this EP was a wonderful experience made incredible by working with some of the best friends I’ve ever had.”
With music that is equally at home on playlists that feature Nick Cave, Fiona Apple, Amy Winehouse, and Leonard Cohen, Shayfer moves unflinchingly from soulful up-tempo rock to smooth ballads. Known for his captivating and theatrical live performances, Shayfer is a true showman, whether it be on large festival stages or at living room house concerts. His darkly fascinating musical story reaches far back into his early childhood, when he nearly lost two fingers while curiously reaching his right hand into the engine compartment of his father’s idling tractor. After emergency surgery and skin grafting, Shayfer’s mother sat with him and exercised his fingers at the piano every day for months. It is that early relationship with the keyboard that, fifteen years later, resulted in the piano becoming a natural emotional and physical extension of Shayfer’s writing; a mechanism through which he creates, communicates, heals, and destroys.
Shayfer began recording music in 2008, and since then, he has released two full-length albums, three EPs and various singles, as well as special projects and demos for his fans. He has toured and performed at festivals and events in the U.S. (Art Basel, CMJ), the UK, Iceland (SagaFest), and Hong Kong. Shayfer’s music has been featured by Filter Magazine, MTV Hive, and as New & Noteworthy on iTunes. His original songs and musical scores have appeared in horror and suspense films which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, SXSW in 2018, and the North Bend Film Festival in 2018. In addition to writing, recording, performing, and scoring for film, Shayfer is currently writing two musicals with collaborator Kate Douglas (Sleep No More, NYC) which have been developed in residence at Goodspeed Musicals, The O’Neill, and Rhinebeck Writers.
Shayfer’s fourth EP, Hope, And A Hand Grenade, was released February 1 of this year and is available through AWAL distribution (Kobalt Music).
So, let’s take a listen to the new record and point out a few standout tracks.
First up is a track called “Mercy Down.” This song is described as the current state of affairs in America, and much of the world, which is quite disturbing to the writer. James says, “I believe in the inherent good within our species, but we’ve got a tumultuous road ahead of us. Weapons, as referenced in this song, are not the gunmetal and explosives we often associate with violence, but rather tools of resistance. Words. Love. Hope.” Shayfer kicks things off in a very G. Love and Special Sauce vibe as drums, guitars, bass, and vocals take us into the scenario of his latest effort. James vocals are strong and melodic as he utilizes his voice in the smartest of ways, pairing simple arrangements with intelligent lyrics and catchy sections to bring his listeners into his world. Guitars use a fabulous combination of washed chords and a mean down stroke to drive the song, as bass pumps a fluid and free-flowing line over the top of simple (but crucial) drum beats. Choruses tie everything together and have the able assistance of strong backing vocals to get Shayfer’s point across.
“Ophelia” sails into the mix next shored up with hypnotic electric guitars, picking chords and pieces over the top of pianos and synths. Percussion is simple but effective, utilizing hi-hat tambourine, as synths and guitars shine brightly. Shayfer’s vocal attack is brilliant as he soars above the mix and brings in his harmony attack to blend powerful vocal presentations. The chorus is effective and addictive as hell, bringing back memories of Band of Horse in its delivery. Melancholy and filled with emotional stance, “Ophelia” is a definite favorite to this point. This song is about survivors. It is immeasurably troubling to me that most women I know have been abused in some way, including my family members. As James says, “This song was written as part of an art collaboration project I did wherein I wrote songs based on visual art. The artwork the song is based on is a sketch entitled Ophelia; a veiled woman by Ceallaigh Lorenz-Talleyrand. The image and title made me think of Hamlet and how Ophelia is depicted as a mad woman in the play. I wanted to reframe her as a victim of abuse, manipulation, and gaslighting. The concept of gaslighting has so much to do with memory. For me, in this song, Ophelia is a hero because she remembers herself and how to escape.”
“Boots Worn Through” is up next and delivers an upbeat style reminiscent of early Decemberists or even the Smiths. James describes this as, “My take on true romance: two vastly different humans poised for adventure both independently and together. If more people were tuned into the idea that every good story begins when the one before it ends, we’d be a lot more accepting of each other, life, and love.” Synths ring in unison with pianos, guitars, and rhythm section while James sings his heart out. I especially love the extra percussive work that mixes hand claps with tambourines, as it adds much to the top end sector and doesn’t take away from the theme of the piece. James rings loud and clear as he sings his lyrical theme and his voice is both powerful and clearly toned. Organs also lend catchy vibes, especially as they come out of the section near the end of the song. This is yet another successful song that should do well for James both live and on the radio. The music box ending is also instrumental as it is in the beginning.
One other song I wanted to mention is “Crack a Bottle, Run a Bath.” This is described as “A confident look at romance through a slightly unusual lens. The idea that anything can be worked through with enough conversation, a sense of humor, and an ability to let go of the past is perhaps the most romantic thing we can think of…. Be kind to one another other.” Electric guitars kick things off with James vocal, utilizing a staccato picking style before the band comes in. The rhythm section cracks in perfect sync, as James spins his tale of love, life, and the general preparations of those critical items. The chorus here is also addictively vibrant, and the band hums at its very best. Percussion rings throughout as does synth-bass, bells, and underlying guitars runs.
Shayfer James has put a lot of thought and effort into Hope and a Hand Grenade, and it shows. The EP is out now and available for purchase at his record release show in NYC at Rockwood Music Hall on March 8. For more information on the record, the band, and the show, head over to www.shayferjames.com and get the info.