- Mo James Band, Breathe
My first paying gig as a music journalist was a muddy, traumatic affair. A well-known jam band had announced its impending demise and a subsequent farewell festival on a farm in the Northeast Kingdom. My exposure to jam bands was minimal at that point, and, I'll admit, I was deeply curious. Besides, a paycheck is a paycheck, people!
Well, the weekend was a miserable affair full of sad hippies and muddy fields. It did, however, expose me to a phenomenon I hadn't experienced before: the unbridled ability of the jam scene to find optimism in any situation. By the end of the weekend, most of the mud-covered jammers I'd interviewed expressed a weary sort of happiness that baffled me.
I bring this up because, while listening to the debut album from the Mo James Band, Breathe, I was struck by the stiff-upper-lip mentality of the songs. The 10 tracks, all recorded and played by singer-songwriter EJ Borsellino, are tributes to good vibes and to persevering through tough times.
"This album was inspired from a desire to turn all this time at home into something positive and productive," EJ writes on the Mo James Band Bandcamp page.
So he turned the anxiety of the pandemic into a drive to build a home studio. From there, he launched a project to record one song a week for 10 weeks, even creating videos for the songs and posting them to his Instagram account.
Musically, the results are mixed at best. Breathe opens with the title track, featuring a jaunty guitar figure over a programmed beat as EJ reminds us that "we're in this all together." It's a mantra-style song, exhorting listeners to relax and, well, breathe.
EJ is a talented enough guitarist. His rhythm playing is solid and even shades a little toward the funky side. His leads are full of melody and movement. But it's hard to escape the feeling that he's playing along to a computer — which, for the most part, he is. An inherent coldness pervades some tracks and doesn't benefit either the roots-rock nature of the compositions or his subject matter.
EJ plays more to his strengths on "Core," a mid-tempo rocker with a clever guitar lick at the center and an ascendant chorus. "The kids are dancing in the halls / The paint is melting off the walls / See it clearer than before / Got to get down to the core," he sings with a gruff, cool-uncle-who-just-let-you-hit-his-joint-at-the-show vibe.
Look, as a Gen Xer, I've never been comfortable with songs telling me that everything is going to be OK. It's just not how my brain works. So, when I hear a song called "Hope You're All Feeling Well," my eyes narrow and I wonder what the catch is.
But that's the upside of the jam genre — and Breathe, for that matter. Do I love these songs? No, I do not. I am learning to enjoy the sentiment, though. It's honest, and that counts for a lot, artistically. The Mo James Band truly wants you to be OK. I can get behind that.
Breathe is available at mojamesband.bandcamp.com.