In Chicago, as in New York, folk-singer/songwriters tend to fall into one of two groups: not-so-grizzled veterans, and lean and hungry newcomers. Established artists have included Steve Goodman, John Prine, Mike Smith, Jim Post, Bonnie Koloc, and Bob Gibson. Up-and-comers include Frank Tedesso, Andrew Calhoun, Keith Nichols, and James McCandless.

McCandless recently released his debut album, Faultline, on the St. Christopher label. The album jacket is a bit off-putting, but don't be put off; this is an interesting record, with good guitar work and good writing.

Jim McCandless knows his way around a finger-picked guitar. "Reindeer/Schwartz" is a nice ragtime piece, and "When The President Came To Town" will have a familiar ring to it for anyone whose childhood diet included Merrie Melodie cartoons. As a writer, McCandless is anything but self-absorbed. The songs in Faultline are filled with character and event sketches (in fact, on the five song first side, the word "I" appears only once). McCandless doesn't moralize he doesn't preach; he just holds up a mirror. (Available in CD and disc.)

The title cut "Faultline" is a fine song about technological arrogance. The song draws sharp parallels between the Titanic and Hindenberg disasters and the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor. The song is particularly well produced, with some fine, moody bass from Erwin Yasakawa, and congas and tree-bells from Lee Diaz, to frame McCandless' guitar and vocals.

"Kareem and Me" is another winner, a song to console those of us who seem to be growing slightly taller than their hair:

Kareem and me-goin' bald together
It stings a little less when I think of it in that regard
So hair, fare-thee-well, up to heaven
I'm in good company, Abdul-Jabbar

(Note: in all the photos of McCandless that I've seen, he seems to have a pretty full head of hair, but you never know!)

The album closes with "I Am An Eagle", a simple and graceful love song, with a few deftly drawn images.

I am an eagle, noble and proud
I pierce dangerous thunderclouds
Nothing can stop me making it through
Straight to you.
Nothing can stop me, golden on the wing to you.

McCandless' normally rough-hewn approach is surprisingly gentle here, thanks in large part to Brian Anderson's piano and background vocals.

In every single song on this album, McCandless has written things that stay with you, images or lines that stop you cold. In addition to the lines quoted above, some of my favorites are:

"Cars were stuck like stamps, up and down the entrance ramps"
"Froth like a fountain all over; Life is one fine waste of time"
"You'll prob'ly swallow Quaaludes from a mason jar, Wake up dead in a red sports car"
"Streamers in the wind. Tracers in the willow wind, upturned faces greening in the summertime..."

I'm not going to tell you what songs these are from; get hold of the album and find them yourself.

-Josh Joffen
-Fast Folk Musical Magazine