On the rarest of occasions, this correspondent finds himself unable to put his feelings about a record into words.  Such was the case with Shayfer James’s new album, Counterfeit Arcade.  At first blush, this seems to be straight-ahead barroom music, with staggering rhythmic structures and slurred instrumental foundations bubbling and swaying beneath too-crisp-to-be-sober vocal delivery.  But that isn’t all there is here.

There is something in Counterfeit Arcade that is immutable.  The record has a personality.  Or maybe personality isn’t even a strong enough word — this album has a soul.  It is not just daguerrotype tales of profligate sexualism in muggy bayou bars (the man is from New Jersey, after all).  It is even more than sepia-toned chronicles of the push-pull between love and lust and loss.  There seems to be an undercurrent of escapism here, as though all the tales told here are recounted only to avoid discussing something more real.  And while that “something” does not come to the surface here as often as this critic might hope, it is almost certainly there.  “I survive on bourbon, blood, and backward glances,” James brays.  The swagger here, it seems, is a defense mechanism, that last wall protecting a tortured soul from being brutally bared to the voyeuristic world at large.

And like all souls, that of Counterfeit Arcade is imperfect by nature.  It is impetuous, undisciplined, self-focused, and unapologetic– or maybe just not particularly aware of its listener.  But the tradeoff there is a confidence that never sways, a personality that is absolutely consistent, and a completely owned musical identity.  The self-assurance Mr James projects on this record is at once magnetic and off-putting. But this is probably due more to the insecurities of the listener than anything else; while not all of us aspire to the levels of bourbon-blasted lechery and leer projected here, there is an ideological purity — or perhaps consistency is the more appropriate term — that is enviable.  But deeper listens will arouse the suspicion that this whiskey-washed swagger is all a front.  What your correspondent spent so many listens trying to discover is: what is he trying to hide?  What does he want to avoid talking about?  Or maybe, what is he really talking about?  The clues are not abundant, or at least not overt.  In some ways, you might say Shayfer James occupies his image a bit too much, to the point of obfuscating a deeper message that is almost surely there.  But on the other hand, that is part of the mystery and allure of it all, the draw that will keep you spinning this record.

“For the Departed” shines brightest as an example of this mystery.  “I will write a symphony for the departed,” James wails.  This is not a song about physical death.  It is a song about spiritual death, a paean to “the man I used to be.”  But little insight is offered into what precisely caused this decline of the spirit.  Even less is revealed about the man who James used to be, or for that matter, the man he currently is.  This feeling that we aren’t getting the whole story permeates the entire album.

Of course, that very feeling is analogized by the album itself.  The thematic structure and presentation of Counterfeit Arcade is something of an allegory for the process of uncovering its own inscrutable subtext.  The record itself is a scattering of disparate images, and in a lot of ways, the narrative goal of the record seems to be to thread it all together into something more coherent and meaningful.  Like so many alcoholic escapades, the recounting of the events themselves are as much a search for the truth of what happened as they are for the meaning of it.  Shayfer James seems to be involved in the same multi-layered search.  On one level, his memories are hazy; these songs are bleary-eyed and distracted reminiscences of events that sit just outside conscious grasp.  On still another plane, though, the incompleteness of the narrative does not preclude the extraction of some applicable didactic heft.  That is, in spite of the fact that James seems to know he’s not recounting the whole story, the narrative of Counterfeit Arcade is built upon the foundational presupposition that not only can we learn from incomplete memories, sometimes we can learn even more.  What we forget can be as instructive as what we remember.

Shayfer James weaves surprisingly genuine musical landscapes that evoke the gauzy, sweaty sexuality of gulf-coast barrooms but also the fantastical, narcotic mysticism of a Lewis Carroll-inspired three-ring circus.  The swill and splashy barroom pound of the ivories is central here, along with clattering percussion, and of course, James’s own wildly theatrical vocals, with all his deep inhalations and desperate exhortations (indeed, the record’s weakest moments are when he fails to fully occupy his carefully constructed vaudevillian aesthetic — see “When Heaven Closes”).  James is certainly a capable vocalist.  His voice is a weapon; central to the aesthetic of the album — he even uses his breath as a rhythmic or dynamic tool.  He alternates impressively between lecherous, rich bellow, stage whisper, gloomy, and drunken croon.

He tends to wax melodramatic, and perhaps does so too often.  “Siren Song” in particular finds him engaging in perhaps more theatricality than is warranted by the content of the song.  That is one link in a chain of self-indulgences on this record.  At times, it works brilliantly, as it does on “For the Departed”, when James moans, “Save yourself / I am far beyond repair / they will bury me alive / but I’m not inclined to care.”  On balance, James hits far more than he misses.  It begins on a strong note, with the percussive, powerful “Weight of the World,” which has all the makings of a single. Along with “Diggin’ Up Hatchets,” this opening song finds James the most thoroughly in command of his druggy, sprawling ragtime showmanship.

It is strange that a record like this could come out of New Jersey.  Prejudice suggests the geographical origin of this record is yet another layer to the inscrutability of this record, the most fundamental misdirection of all.  But even controlling for geography, this record is mysterious and complex, a far deeper effort than it might initially seem to be.  Sprawling, ambitious, and imperfect, Counterfeit Arcade is not a record you will easily wrap your brain around, nor one about which you will feel particularly secure in your understanding.  But, it would seem, that is rather the point.

8.0 / 10.0