Album Review: James Bay – Hold Back the River EP

By on Monday, 24th November 2014 at 12:00 pm

I had the pleasure of seeing Hitchin’s most famous hat on the head of singer/songwriter James Bay at the 9:30 Club in Washington DC earlier this month, when he was on tour supporting Irish phenomenon Hozier. Following that tour, Bay embarked on his own tour of the UK and Ireland which continues into this week, coinciding with the release of his latest single ‘Hold Back the River’, out today.

At this point, the male singer/songwriter genre is so fully saturated that it has become difficult to distinguish one from the others. Newcomers to the scene have to develop and emphasise some unique aspect of their style in order to set themselves apart. Bay isn’t exactly a rookie, even at the young age of 24, having spent a fair amount of time honing his live skills on tour with Kodaline, John Newman, and Tom Odell. Aside from his ubiquitous wide-brimmed hat, Bay’s most distinctive characteristics are his melodic guitar style and his warm, rich vocal timbre. On the singer/songwriter spectrum, I’d put him somewhere between the pop-oriented sensibility of Luke Sital-Singh and the gospel tinge of Foy Vance or Hozier himself. He doesn’t have the pretentious alt-folk affectations of artists like Bon Iver, preferring to stick with a more straightforward guitar rock style, flavoured with both folk and blues.

The new EP release of ‘Hold Back the River’ includes 4 tracks, bookended by the title track in both studio version and a live performance recording from the Hotel Café in Los Angeles. The studio version emphasises the contrast between the halting rhythm in the opening vocal melody and the steady pulse of the drums, while the guitar melody plays up the naturalistic folk character in the lyrics. Bay’s vocals combine with hints of gospel harmony in the backing voices as the song builds to its anthemic chorus.

Second track ‘Sparks’ is much more pop-oriented, with crisper rhythms and angular blues guitar riffs. Its title is particularly appropriate: the friction between Bay’s husky singing voice and the sharp instrumental lines was electric enough to raise goose bumps on my arms.

The final two tracks on the EP, ‘Wait in Line’ and ‘Hold Back the River (live)’ are both stripped back to acoustic guitar and solo voice. ‘Wait in Line’ is particularly powerful in its starkness, allowing Bay’s emotive singing voice to take centre stage, both in its clear falsetto and its resonant full sound. For my money, the live version of ‘Hold Back the River’ is the real gem of this collection, as the dynamic and emotional contrasts are somehow more fully realized than in the studio arrangement.

James Bay is definitely one of those artists whose true energy comes across best in live performance. If he can find a way to translate that energy to his recordings, he will certainly establish himself as a force to be reckoned with among the singer/songwriter melee.


James Bay‘s new single ‘Hold Back Tte River’ is available now on Republic Records. You can read our previous coverage of the title track by watching the official video and viewing a live version of the single from Transmitter. James Bay is currently finishing off his November tour of the UK and Ireland. He will play a headline show at Koko in London on Thursday the 12th of February next year before heading out on a full spring tour in April.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

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