ROSALIE JAMES – Full Of Chemicals

Singer songwriter Rosalie James began her musical career in earnest in the summer of 2023. Over the following year, she received a surprising amount of attention. Not only from BBC Radio in her native Cornwall, but also from farther afield. Her first couple of singles, ‘Girl I Was’ (released in April) and the brilliant ‘Soft Target’ (released in June) were well received via various online outlets, and showed off her great talent for a pop rock sound and personal lyric. Both tracks felt very different from each other in such a way that it piqued interest for the promised forthcoming album.

‘Full of Chemicals’, a ten song collection – supposedly culled from over two hundred songs James had already written – lives up to every bit of the promise suggested by those earlier singles. If anything, it exceeds those expectations, and also sends the listener on a musical roller coaster ride where a world of different moods come together, with Rosalie unafraid of genre-hopping to find styles that best serve her narrative style.

The album begins very gently with ‘My Nature’, a piece of finger picked folk, where Rosalie’s acoustic work weaves a steady waltz, and her voice cries with clarity throughout. Minimalist accompaniment comes from a wheezing sax, leaving the main focus on a lyric where the protagonist talks openly about a “hole in the future” which she’s “not sure she suits”. Such a stark revelation should jar, or at least unsettle the unsuspecting listener, but the performer’s refreshing honesty actually works very naturally, setting the tone for a very confessional set of songs. There’s a brief burst of something rockier en route, used brilliantly to show off the imbalance and uncertainty of personal thoughts here, which also goes a long way to avoiding this becoming of a singular mood, or perhaps feeling a little too introspective for an opening statement. In contrast, the sharp pop rock of ‘Soft Target’ is far more upbeat and actually manages to be more impressive, but without drawing anything away from Rosalie’s lyrical approach. The lyrics retain her distinctive turn of phrase as she likens her boyfriend to a sedative, personal paranoia to a circling vulture, and even drops in an unexpected punchline about furniture. Musically, this is a real treat, too, as a wall of jangling guitars weave a rock-pop sound that harks back to the 90s, but still feels massively pleasing at the time of release, and – most importantly – is a perfect melodic counterpart to the vocalist’s distinctive tones which bristle throughout this really catchy track. On first listen, it’s a genuine album standout; a few plays later, an early career best. With a great pop melody bristling against a wall of shoegaze-ish guitars, the arrangement offers a pleasing yin-yang, and with the way James manages to offset what could’ve been a heavy lyric with such a feel-good tune, it’s easy to hear how this won an International songwriting competition.

‘Pieces’ finds James reaching for the acoustic guitar again, but this track isn’t just another woozy, folky workout. There’s a folky core, certainly, but wavering slide notes add something that feels closer to retro sounding cosmic country. Then, at the point where the listener feels fairly settled in a Wilco-ish haze, the volume is cranked, the layers of guitar are augmented by a harder drum, and James pushes for vocal extremes, filling the chorus with a few shrill notes that fall somewhere between Heather Nova and a very tuneful Victoria Williams. Whichever way you approach this, though, it’s superb. It has a real power, but without bombast; a huge heart that feels like something you’ve always known, but at the same time, a fresh honesty that makes it wholly relevant. In a softer mood, ‘Into The Blue’ shared multi-tracked, melodic vocals over a sparse, slow musical backdrop where casual piano notes and atmospheric guitar sets a mood that’s almost floaty. It’s one of those occasions where the arrangement is a perfect fit for the title, and that’s before the vocal swells to take in a much broader melody. Lyrically, its questioning stance (“I know I fucked up everything, but…I’m not made of stone”) has an edgy approach that’s at odds with the tune itself, but this only highlights the personal turmoil that’s been shared in a most candid way. You won’t be hit with the immediacy offered by ‘Soft Target’, but in time, this could become a stand out track.

James shares even more stark, personal lyrical moments during the title cut, when a pop rock arrangement that might’ve suited Lissie and Set Feux is juxtaposed with hard edged, striking lyrics about escaping a suicide attempt (“I hid away the razor blade, to keep it safe / I think they call that a close shave”), and the search for personal happiness, quickly making it “classic” Rosalie James. By the time the number moves towards its end with the protagonist surviving an “apocalypse to find peace”, this has worked such a great groove that those not into lyrics might still be able to glean plenty of entertainment value, since the combination of smooth pop vocal, shimmering guitar and solid bass work comes together in such a perfect way. Another very accessible number, ‘Girl I Was’ takes on a similar musical tone, and in doing so, immediately invokes solo works by Stevie Nicks. It’s not a straight copy of her legendary sound, however; there are moments during this great number where whirring guitars convey slightly more of an indie feel, and the solid groove that cuts through the track has a very distinct identity of its own. No matter where the music goes, though, it’s Jones who’s firmly in the driving seat, and her vocal cries out with a great clarity throughout.

Another dip into a lush, mellow world of sound, ‘Island’ finds Rosalie harmonising with Storefront Church – aka Lukas Frank – whose light approach works perfectly in tandem with James, but just as effortlessly when he’s afforded a verse of his own, which takes on slightly more of an Americana sound due to his soaring vocal style. Both performers are easily able to convey the sadness and unease within a lyric about not feeling good enough as a parent when taking on the responsibility at a young age, but as with the majority of the work here, there’s more than enough wonderful music here to make the track hold up for those not interested in the narrative. That said, at this point, if its just feel good pop hits you wanted, this might not be the kind of album you’ll enjoy in the long term… Bringing everything full circle, ‘The Difference The Light Will Make’ mirrors ‘My Nature’ by being quite sparsely arranged, but James trades in the folky acoustic guitar sounds for a stately piano arrangement, over which her voice soars as if caught within one of Sarah McLachlan’s grand ballads. It takes all of about thirty seconds to fall in love with this final tune. Its slightly more predictable sound makes it classic singer-songwriter fare, but in keeping with the bulk of this album, James has no interest in lulling the listener. Here, she implores a significant other not to “forget the way things were” and suggests “the drugs were just a cure”, but somehow, between the flowing melody and almost ghostly backing vocals that pulls everything to a close, there’s both a strange beauty and a feeling of optimism.

‘Full of Chemicals’ is a superb album: it’s richly layered, brilliantly produced, slickly arranged and full of sophisticated lyrical barbs and questions, which will often trigger a world of thoughts within the right kind of listener. Both ‘Girl I Was’ and ‘Soft Target’ play brilliantly as both stand alone, radio-friendly tracks, but also as part of a larger body of work, but it’s the more introspective elements of ‘Fall Into The Blue’ and ‘Island’ more than prove James has enough talent to go the distance without immediate hooks. It’s a record that works brilliantly as a cohesive listen despite the variety of styles, but more importantly in the age of push-button musical thrills and streaming, it works just as well as a collection of individual songs. Regardless of what else might’ve been in Rosalie’s stock pile, with ten tracks and no filler, this debut full length is a superb showcase for her talents.

July 2024

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