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James Kochalka Superstar, 'James and Gravy'


Published June 14, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

James Kochalka Superstar, James and Gravy - COURTESY
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  • James Kochalka Superstar, James and Gravy

(Self-released, digital)

On his new EP, James and Gravy, James Kochalka Superstar offers up six sugar-sweet ditties with mushy titles like "Fuzzy Moon" and "Weeping Willow." The EP is the latest effort from James Kochalka, a multi-hyphenate artist best known for his comics.

Kochalka was named Vermont's first cartoonist laureate in 2011 and ran a strip called "American Elf" in Seven Days until 2012. In a 2011 Seven Days profile of Kochalka, Lauren Ober called him a "man-child," a hometown Peter Pan/Pee-Wee Herman determined to hover in arrested youth. That determination is as present as ever on James and Gravy.

The EP's cartoonish title track welcomes listeners to its juvenile palette. Outfitted with an acoustic guitar, Kochalka sings: "Come on take my hand / and I'll take you to a land / where everything is James and Gravy."

As earnest as Kochalka is on this track, there's a world-weariness underlying it. He might even be turning to earnestness because he is world-weary, running from somewhere as much as running to it.

"Ain't you sick of this place? Let's just teleport away," he sings.

He sounds his age, bellowing with a mature voice that gets tired when it strains for high notes or holds syllables. There's something sad about listening to an old person speak in the idiom of a young person.

The nakedness of the EP's production leaves Kochalka exposed. Past projects buried his splintering warble in punk bells and whistles (see 1997's Monkey vs. Robot) or a cappella trills (see 2022's Bike Flipper).  By contrast, James and Gravy has a barren soundscape — basic strumming, bonking keys and organ. The recording, engineered by Benny Yurco and produced by Neil Cleary, picks up every croak and crack. It's really all James, not much gravy. 

Some tunes land more like Real Songs than others. The EP's upbeat second track, "I Wanna Love You," feels unfinished. Its tinny drums underscore a hook that hinges on the oh-so-original rhyme of "love you" and "be true." A listener might wonder, Is the wedding singer drunk? Or Who let Dad do karaoke?

However, in the middle of the EP, Kochalka delivers some musical gems. "Fuzzy Moon" includes masterful lyrics that liken the moon to a bottle cap, a patch of mold and a Cheerio, and it features some deft, loping internal rhymes. It's hard to know what Kochalka means when he says he's "skinny-dipping down the road," but this surreal whimsy shows his playfulness in its finest form.

"Hopes and Dreams" stitches together the EP's generic parts — deep-voiced campfire music à la Dan Reeder and twee wallowing à la Conor Oberst. Does Kochalka rhyme "making love to you" with "dream that's coming true," nearly recycling the hackneyed couplet from two songs back? Yeah. But by now, this sloppiness feels like it's part of his proposition. We can insist on the sufficiency of love, plain and simple, if we suspend our critical thinking (and listening) for a second.

Those in search of a cohesive narrative arc might not like James and Gravy. You also definitely won't like it if you're not down with bad-singer music. Kochalka's jejune intonations recall lo-fi greats such as Daniel Johnston. For those who find that sort of thing cloying, James and Gravy will be a nightmare.

But there are folks out there with a soft spot for sad men singing amateurishly. (I'm one of them, actually.) For them (us), James and Gravy is a charming EP of stripped-down love songs whose bright, affected façade allows some compelling bits of desperation to poke through.

James and Gravy is available at kochalka.bandcamp.com and major streaming platforms.

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