First Ray Of Light is James Harbidge’s debut solo album; an accomplished collection of soulful, country-tinged, often-contemplative songs with a strong political undercurrent at times becoming quite overt. A rocker from the Black Country with strong roots in the Birmingham music scene,while this is his first excursion into the field of Americana music it turns out to be no surprise he sounds so at home in it.
You can only spend a short time with James to appreciate that he’s a music-lifer, with over two decades of playing, writing and producing under his belt. As a teenager he played in Powderfinger (not to be confused with the Australian band of the same name) who featured on 1997’s Heart Of Darkness compilation of West Midlands bands and subsequently attracted the brief attention and funding from Parlophone.
Though it came to nothing it seems in no way to have phased this eternally optimistic and resourceful character, who’s quite prepared to take a punt at something. He seems fully aware that life’s a learning process, and it’s wise to always take as much you can from your experiences. So having successfully recorded an album’s worth of songs into a soundcard with two mics, after always being fascinated by the process, he became a mobile recordist.
Putting himself about, capturing live performances through an eight-input interface, he connected with The Twang’s management; having impressed them he took over their studio, which though fully-equipped, was then only being used as a rehearsal space. Recording would became a passion; often working with producer Gavin Monaghan (The Editors, Ocean Colour Scene) he’d take every advantage to “watch him like a hawk”. This eventually led to him engineering JAWS’ first album.
James’ musical nurturing came from his father, and embraced polarities. Every morning they’d listen to either Paranoid or Deja Vu, and along the way he also picked up an abiding love of The Beatles. Thus his instinct to rock was always tempered by a high regard for melody. The rock won out with Third Bullet, the trio he formed in the mid-noughties with Steve Busby and Matt Challoner. Labelled as a grunge band and a ‘more melodic Soundgarden’ their Revelations album (produced by Monaghan) gained good notices; ‘Resistance Is Futile’ was used in a Harley Davidson advertising campaign and posthumously interest has continued to grow.
Both the band and James’ involvement with The Twang’s studio were winding down as the initial recordings for First Ray Of Light were being made. Both James’ personal circumstances, and the music scene Third Bullet had thrived in, were altering, and this perhaps led to a degree of introspection encouraging a change of direction. It was further influenced by a move to Derbyshire where once settled he began engaging with musicians in the new locality and quickly turned up the enthusiastic, multi-instrumentalist Pete Larkin.
Larkin was impressed with the material already laid down in Birmingham with Matt Challoner on drums and Paul Grimsley providing backing vocals, but he suggested adding keyboards. James recognised the virtue of this and quickly got him on board. Along with the young guitarist Alex Dengate and drummer Mark Bates they went into Derby’s Dubrek Studios to cut some more songs and overdubs, and from there were able to complete the album.
The songs prove to be both personal and political, but all rooted in everyday experience, either lived or observed, and they acknowledge the ups and downs that go with simply living and how you cope with them: “Sometimes the only way to get something out is in a song. You can find something positive in a rough situation; if you can write a song at least you’re perhaps turning it back on itself”.
The title track ‘First Ray Of Light’ exemplifies this. There’s an understanding there have been bad times, but equally a positive message, of there being light at the end of the tunnel, in both the words and the music. You can also catch the hint of a little Beatles thing going on with some backwards guitar during the solo; it will recur throughout the album: “I always try and bring out melody in everything. It’s not trying to get people to listen so much as because I love to sing along to songs; if I can’t sing along to a song I’m not so interested in it.”.
With the exception of ‘Have Mercy’, an older co-write James had long looked to find the right reading of, all these songs were written specifically for this album and broadly link thematically. Candid songs about relationships; the precise and gentle ‘A Side Of You That Cares’ with its brave and affecting instrumental interlude and Larkin’s lap steel and piano, the soulful ‘When You Don’t Love Your Man’, and the keening ‘Learn To Love The Rain’.
There’s anger too, as the attention is grabbed from the get-go with the vigorous up-tempo opening of ‘Turn The Screw’, an accusatory song about people in control who wreak havoc and cause damage in people’s lives with no comeback. It’s very quickly instrumentally busy, with the organ and mandolin, and a brief Neil Young-like harmonica solo, setting a marker for the whole record. Later will also come ‘I Won’t Support Your Wars’, a considered and unashamedly pacifist manifesto.
‘Have Mercy’ begins on acoustic guitar and expands into something much larger and anthemic; you hear the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young inflections in the layered voices, and Pete Larkin’s accordion contributions are telling. The album closer ‘I Know You Know I Know’ is a similarly big song; almost seven minutes long driven by Hammond organ ensuring a particularly rich and hard sound.
While First Ray Of Light may chronicle a process of growth, both personally and musically, viewed in its diverse whole, it arrives a fully-formed entity, and heralds a new and compelling voice on the UK Americana scene.
Journalist, Nick West.