Review of ‘Little Star,’ an Album by Jim Lord
By Henry M. Summers
Jazz genius Thelonious Sphere Monk famously said “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Nevertheless, as Jim’s friend for over fifty years and an unabashed fanboy of his music, I’m bound to take a crack at it. (Jim’s even an architect of sorts, having recently designed and built a first-rate wooden bridge that spans a stream on his farm in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains. But as the World’s Worst Dancer, I’ll say no more about architecture.)
My introduction to Jim occurred during his encore performance of the seventh grade at Memorial Junior High School in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. (He would make his final bow from academia just two years later.) I was a sophomore, comfortably seated in my customary booth at the Highway Diner, when Jim walked in. The impudent clacking of his cleated engineer boots on the tile floor provoked me even before I looked up and saw him. He was so skinny he looked like he had been twisted together out of pipe cleaners.
When he bent over to light a cigarette, he nearly set his pompadour on fire. Lighting my own Camel, I scolded him for being too young to smoke, and demanded that he extinguish his cigarette immediately. When he refused, I arose from my booth in high dudgeon.
Before matters could escalate, Jim’s hulking protector, Joe Tawil, materialized out of the shadows. “Is there a problem here?” he grunted. Clearly outgunned, I replied “Not as far as I’m concerned,” and slunk back to the sanctuary of my booth.
Nearly twenty years later, at the height of the American Folk Revival, our paths would cross once more. Jim had traded his cleats in on cowboy boots, and his pompadour for a pony tail. This time, we bonded instantly. During the ensuing decades, I watched with deep satisfaction as he established himself in the top-most tier of folk-rooted singer-songwriters.
‘Little Star,’ Jim’s fifth album, opens with a driving blues entitled ‘A Beautiful Man.’ The theme that beauty is only skin-deep has inspired countless songs by endless artists (e.g., The Temptations’ ‘Beauty is Only Skin Deep,’ and Billy Joel’s ‘Just the Way you Are’). But in ‘A Beautiful Man,’ Jim celebrates his subject’s indomitability while describing his numerous physical and mental afflictions in unsettling detail. For Jim, the man’s afflictions are the very source of his beauty. Mike Mitchell’s violin plays arabesques around Joe DeJarnette’s irresistible bass line, while Ellen Lovino joins Jim on backup vocals. At the last, we give ear to the primal scream of Al Mueller.
The next cut, ‘Helplessly I Fell,’ features Mike Mitchell’s violin and Sam Kephart’s viola in an achingly beautiful string arrangement by David Hoffner.
On the title track ‘Little Star,’ Jim recasts the nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ as a wistful expression of lost love. He harmonizes sweetly with Kari Kovick, and demonstrates his masterful finger-picking technique on acoustic, while sessions guitar legend Van Manakas dazzles on electric.
‘Let Me Know’ is a heavy-hearted ballad in a minor key. It speaks of a lengthy separation, in which the singer still holds out hope for mending fences. In addition to Van Manakas’s virtuosic electric guitar, we have the rare treat of hearing him playing acoustic in a duet with Jim. Percussionist Chris T.K. Wimmer is heard on djembe, the traditional goblet-shaped drum of West Africa.
Side A concludes with ‘Wounded Dove.’ Set in waltz time, the song opens on a tableau of everyday objects summoned from the distant past. Jim’s tender vocal and deft finger-picking are beautifully supported by Sam Kephart’s dulcet viola, and engineer Dave Fason’s synthesizer.
Side B starts off with ‘No Need to be Afraid.’ The listener is reminded of Jim’s deep connection to nature–we can almost see the passing of the seasons. ‘No Need to be Afraid’ was recorded at Music Road Studio in Floyd, Virginia, and features the album’s largest assembly of musicians: Van Manakas on lead guitar; Luke Thomas on rhythm; Janiah Allen on bass; Jake Thomas on drums; David Hoffner on synth; and Chris T. K. Wimmer on percussion. Kari Kovick harmonizes with Jim on vocals.
‘They Told You’ is a rousing assault on established authority. Butch Robins’ banjo makes me think of Pete Seeger, who would surely have loved this song. Bassist Joe DeJarnette and percussionist Chris T.K. Wimmer provide their always impeccable support.
Màthair is an affectionate term for mother in Scots-Gaelic. This lilting duet between Jim’s acoustic guitar and Mike Mitchell’s mellow violin needs no words. I was fortunate to have known Edna Lord, Jim’s unforgettable mother, a woman of warmth, grace, and intelligence.
‘When I Think of You’ again finds Jim in his most-liked milieu, immersed in nature. Chris T. K. Wimmer’s djembe and Joe DeJarnette’s bass move the rhythm forward, while Jim and Kari Kovick harmonize like country kinfolk.
‘Little Star’ concludes on an upbeat note with ‘I’m Goin’ Fishin’, my wife’s favorite track. ’I’m going’ Fishin’ ‘ takes its place beside Woody Guthrie’s ‘Talking Fishing Blues,’ Bing Crosby’s and Louie Armstrong’s ‘Gone Fishin’, and ‘Fishin’ Blues,’ recorded by everyone from Taj Mahal to Disney Studios. ‘I’m Goin’ Fishin’ ‘ was recorded before a live audience at Quad Studio Lakeside in Greenwood Lake, New York. Jim shows his stuff on resonator guitar, with Eric Charles on violin, John Sheehan on banjo, Al Mueller on drums, and Kam Markworth on bass (the instrument, not the fish). The spirited backup vocals are provided by the highly appreciative audience.
I am pleased that ‘Little Star’ was released both on vinyl, and CD. The sound quality on my vinyl copy is luminous, spotlighting the medium’s vaunted warmth. Dave Fason’s engineering and Glenn Meadows’ mastering are both first-rate. But all this artistic and technical effort would be all for naught if not for the preternatural silence of the pressing. The vinyl release of ‘Little Star’ is as free of surface noise as the CD. ‘Little Star’ is bound to become one of your favorite recordings, both for its compelling artistry, and for demonstrating the ability of your audio system.
““HELPLESSLY I FELL” (SINGLE) BY JIM LORD In the new single “Helplessly I Fell,” the strings on a rustic acoustic guitar engage in a simplistic dance with Jim Lord’s vocal rather plainly, but the harmony that they conjure up together is anything but forgettable. There’s a kinship between the instrumentation and the verses in this track that isn’t wholly created by the structure of the rhythm; in fact, I would even suggest that there’s something rather spiritual transpiring in “Helplessly I Fell,” which is easily one of the more boldly evocative songs you’re going to find when browsing through the tracklist of Lord’s Little Star album. Here, this singer/songwriter is putting tonality before everything else, bucking minimalist trends but refuting the very notion of overindulging in his brightest sonic attributes; in a nutshell, Jim Lord is distinguishing himself as a go-to folk/rock veteran in this latest release, and proving to the world that although he’s five LPs deep into his career, he isn’t about to start slowing down for anything. On the contrary, it looks like we’re going to be hearing some of his best work to date in 2020. Everything from the cadence of the verses to the construction of the main hook in this song is built upon the foundation of the strings, and personally I think this was quite a wise decision to make on Lord’s part. There has been a highly noticeable spike in vocal-driven folk music over the last couple of years, particularly in the alternative community, but “Helplessly I Fell” isn’t relying on powerful poetry alone in its mission to win our hearts and, ultimately, introduce a new generation of fans to the magic that is the Jim Lord discography. The master mix is sporting a fantastic attention to detail, allowing for all of the individual elements in the track to share a bit of the spotlight – if only for a fleeting moment – and by the time that the music ceases to play, we don’t feel as though we’ve just experienced a one-sided compositional effort by any means. There’s a lot that could be done with this song in a live setting, which is definitely where artists like Lord tend to have the biggest impact. Whether you’ve been listening to his music for the past four decades or are just now getting into his sound for the very first time via Little Star, Jim Lord’s “Helplessly I Fell” is a single that you just can’t go wrong with if you love folk/rock crossovers with a slight bend towards Americana. This is one singer/songwriter who has never backed down from a challenge in or out of the studio (just see the pair of live albums that he released in the 2010s for evidence of his live talents), and in 2020, he’s making it abundantly clear to any and all who are listening that his music is going to remain relevant into the next chapter in his storied genre’s history. I’ll be staying tuned for more, and I think you would be wise to do the same.”
Too Much Love Magazine
“Glowing with a melodicism that has unfortunately become a bit of a rarity on the mainstream side of the dial in the last ten years or so, the guitar parts that we find inside of “Helplessly I Fell,” the new single from Jim Lord, are undeniably the most important component of the harmony that the track is built upon, and even if you’re unfamiliar with this artist’s discography, it’s hard not to notice the amount of skill and experience he brings to the instrumental end of his latest release. Lord is approachable, richly poetic and exposed in a way that so few players in the folk, country and adult contemporary genres are willing to be in 2020 here, making “Helplessly I Fell” one of the great songs of its kind to debut in the year thus far. Jim Lord isn’t just showing off his capabilities as a guitarist in this track; truth be told, this is some of the strongest vocal work he’s turned in since his 2000 record Hangdog Heaven. He’s demonstrated a rather reserved attitude with his verses prior to now, but that reticence is missing from this composition – in its place, we discover nothing but a willingness to be heard, and moreover, a desire to get this narrative across with a serenade as potent as any of the actual words are. Lord is forward and undaunted by the task set before him in “Helplessly I Fell,” essentially confirming his status as being among the more elite singer/songwriters in his peer group today. With regard to the arrangement of the instrumentation in this track, there’s no need to debate whether or not the musicality in “Helplessly I Fell” endears itself more to a conservative school of thought than it does the contemporary alternative aesthetic, but I wouldn’t say that the song qualifies as a straight throwback to 70’s folk/rock ala John Denver and James Taylor. Lord is giving us as a lot of guts where it counts here and simplicity in the compositional framework where it matters the most, and despite the difficulties that come with striking this kind of a balance, he never sounds even slightly unprepared or overwhelmed by the ambitious nature of the music in this single. He’s come a long way since 1982’s Inside Out, and longtime fans will especially appreciate his development. I only just recently started exploring Jim Lord’s deeper catalogue of releases again, but “Helplessly I Fell” is unquestionably one of his best songs to hit record stores in the time he’s been back in the spotlight. It’s been said that we’re living in a new renaissance for singer/songwriters, and to some degree, the reemergence of iconic indie players like this one only makes this theory harder for anyone to dispute. Even if you’ve never heard his music before, I encourage you to get out and acquire a copy of Lord’s Little Star and its cornerstone single in “Helplessly I Fell” sooner than later. Folk enthusiasts won’t regret it, and the same can probably said for anybody who loves a solid, organic melody.”
Indie Pulse Music
“Like a light gust of wind cutting through the warmth of a springtime sunshine, the first few bars of Jim Lord’s “Helplessly I Fell” are gentle but instantly evocative, drawing us closer to the growing melody they have to behold. The acoustic guitar that we hear in this instrumental introduction to the track will play a crucial role in making the mood in “Helplessly I Fell” as tangible as it will ultimately become, but it isn’t the only key component for us to tune into here. When Jim Lord starts to sing, there’s a weighty emotiveness in his vocal that cannot be ignored even by the most novice of music buffs, and through his verses we begin to visualize everything he’s describing as though it were coming to life right before our very eyes. All of his cards are on the table in this song, and there’s nowhere for him – or the listener – to hide as its narrative unfolds. This is premium folk-rock for a discriminating generation of connoisseurs, and it couldn’t be arriving at a more important moment this spring. The rhythm here is somewhat plodding, driven forth by a soft percussive channel that never becomes much more than a half-muted nudge in the grander scheme of things. The most powerful element pushing this tempo is the string play, which when synched up with the lead vocal makes it feel as if we’re rocking back and forth to a peaceful lullaby a parent might share with their child before bed. Lord patiently uncages the harmony between his voice and the guitar, providing it just enough space to steal the show away from his own lyrics as we reach the midway point in the track, and although it’s as colorful as they come, it doesn’t saturate the speakers in overpowering texture. I honestly wouldn’t expect anything less from a player like this one, who has devoted the bulk of his life to perfecting the studio process, but while it’s on par with what most of us have come to love about his work, there’s no getting around the fact that Jim Lord’s latest release is quite refreshing amidst the plasticized culture of today’s pop music. “Helplessly I Fell” comes to a conclusion in a haze of lingering violin and acoustic guitar nattering, hinting that its message is one that won’t immediately fade once the music has stopped playing. Though I was anticipating a lot out of this new single from Jim Lord, I was somewhat surprised to encounter such a deeply emotional release from his moniker at this point in his career. He’s covered a lot of ground since dropping his debut album all the way back in 1982, but in this song, he’s showing us that there’s still plenty of uncharted territory that he wants to dig into. Lord has the skill to make pretty much any kind of music he wants to these days, but much to the delight of his many fans – myself included – he’s still creating a strain of folk-rock that will never go out of style (and doing it better than any of his rivals are).”
““Never needed much / Gave away my share / ‘Till I felt your love / ‘Till I felt you there” sings Jim Lord in a retrospective tone as his new single “Helplessly I Fell” begins to take shape before us. In this track, the iconic Lord is unafraid of his own emotionality, bearing his heart on his sleeve without ever hesitating in this harmony-powered ballad. “Helplessly I Fell” asks nothing of its audience other than for a little over four minutes of time to share a story as unique as its teller is, and in exchange we’re provided a picture window into the artistry of a truly underrated singer/songwriter. This release, much like the other music Lord has submitted over the years, enjoys an amazing production quality, but there’s nothing about the mix or engineering that I would point out as being overly polished or pop-centric in stylization. The melodies here are really muscular, contained within the parameters set forth by the verses at the start of the song, and even when the fluidity of the strings is hypnotizing us from the background, our attention is never dragged away from the main action being sourced from the lead vocal. Lord’s singing isn’t the loudest element in this master mix, but I think “Helplessly I Fell” was deliberately constructed this way as to allow for all of the music here to create a collective physicality that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Jim Lord has always produced some really meticulously crafted material, and in this sense, he hasn’t changed a bit since his rookie release Inside Out back in 1982. To a large extent, it’s probably the only thing about his sound that hasn’t evolved, but then again, this aspect of his music never needed to – it was always perfect just the way it is. I love the way the verses become intertwined with the strings as we get further along in this single, and though their joint ascent isn’t critical to the climax being as powerful as it is, I think it was a nice touch nevertheless. Too many artists focus on trying to make monolithic balladry these days instead of applying natural elements to a tried and true blueprint, which, for all intents and purposes, is what Jim Lord has done to quite a bit of success in the last forty years. His younger contemporaries could stand to learn a thing or two from his methods, and that’s putting it very mildly. If what I’ve just heard in “Helplessly I Fell” is just a taste of what’s still to come from the Jim Lord camp in the 2020’s, then I think we need to brace ourselves for what could easily be the most profound work of this man’s career. He’s cultivated a style that is inarguably his own, and in this single (as well as its parent album, Little Star), we’re hearing the fruits of his many years of labor in the most unfiltered, honest way that any audience could have asked for.”
Independent Music and Arts
“Jim Lord has been in the business of being a singer/songwriter for a number of decades now, and he’s putting everything he’s learned as a troubadour to work for him in “Helplessly I Fell,” the new single from his latest album, Little Star, which is currently out everywhere independent music is sold and streamed. Approaching his verses with a tempered, classically folk aesthetic, Lord shies away from experimentation in favor of sticking with what he knows best in “Helplessly I Fell,” and it’s the audience that winds up reaping all the rewards of his efforts when everything is said and done. There have been scores of great indie folk/rock releases making waves this spring, but for purity, there’s no trumping this recent dispatch. This track has an awesome flow that feels almost like a live performance more than it does a standard studio recording, and similarly to the songs it’s joined by in Little Star, “Helplessly I Fell” doesn’t include any of the typical artificialities that have become commonplace in new music today. There are no bells and whistles on the guitar parts, nor are there any beefed up components on the backend to create the illusion of spaciousness in the composition. Lord doesn’t need any of these fanciful tricks to make a big impression here; contrarily, I think that kind of fluff would just get in his way in a track like “Helplessly I Fell,” which is designed around a fairly simplistic concept rather than a particularly progressive one. Lyrically speaking, I think this song could represent the most vulnerable look that we’ve ever seen Jim Lord adopt in a studio recording (2017’s Live at Armando’s doesn’t count). It’s obvious that he isn’t holding anything back with his verses here, and for every sterling band of melodic ribbonry that the guitar parts emit, the ensuing harmony seems to reflect all of the emotion the words are trying so desperately to express to us. Lord isn’t utilizing linguistics as an exclusive means of imparting his narrative to us in “Helplessly I Fell;” instead, he’s employing virtually every authentic weapon at his disposal whilst adhering to a stripped-down aesthetic that doesn’t allow for overindulgence in any scenario – especially when dealing with a ballad like this one. For fans of big harmonies and the mighty tradition of American folk-rock, Jim Lord’s “Helplessly I Fell” is a grand slam that cannot afford to be missed this March, and I’m definitely not the only critic remarking as much right now. Whether planning to do so or not, this singer/songwriter raised the bar for himself and the scene that spawned him with the release of Little Star and its lead single this spring, and though it tells us a lot about how much Lord has grown in the last forty years-plus, it tells us even more about where he’s planning to take his music in the future. I’ll be sticking around for the ride, and judging from the response this track is getting, so will the rest of the indie folk underground.”