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James Velvet, Wide Awake In My Head

Album Review

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(Mr. Lucky Records, CD)

New Haven, Connecticut-based singer-songwriter James Velvet is something of an institution in his own neck of the woods, having played in a long-running area band called The Mocking Birds. He has also co-hosted a music radio program there since 1986. Now performing under his own name, Velvet has released Wide Awake in My Head, a 16-track disc of "rarities" dating back to '89.

Velvet's music is firmly planted in Dad-rock territory, somewhere between the wry humor of Warren Zevon and the blue-collar boogie of Graham Parker. While a bit devoid of visceral thrills, Wide Awake nevertheless provides reliable comforts. Velvet's workmanly voice and earnest lyrics go a long way, and his unpretentious approach to songcraft is refreshing.

"Dark Wind (#2)" showcases the songwriter's more serious side. A biting little rock 'n' roll romp, the song is reminiscent of Scarecrow-era John Mellencamp. A wild guitar solo near the track's end proves that Velvet isn't afraid to cut loose and, while not quite Hendrix, it's still kind of cool. Serviceable slide work peppers "Corrina Gets Away (#1)," a bluesy number with spare percussion and rugged acoustic strumming.

Most of these tunes are instantly hummable; it's clear that Velvet has what it takes to write a catchy song. He's not terribly adventurous, though, and this record won't change the face of rock 'n' roll. "The Kindness of Friends (#2)" is enlivened by hand percussion as well as lovely female harmonies on the choruses. Once again, Velvet delivers a sturdy vocal melody that is cordial and familiar.

It's hard to know whether these cuts represent Velvet's overall body of work, as they're mostly alternate versions of stuff he had kicking around. Back in his hometown, a lot of folks probably know these tunes inside and out, however -- Velvet's got a populist vibe that many singer-songwriters would kill for.

Obviously dedicated to his craft, Velvet is a talented, if somewhat predictable, musical artist. Wide Awake in My Head's gentle rock at least makes for pleasant listening. Hear him in a solo performance this Saturday, January 22, at Radio Bean.

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