General 10-28-2004

JoAnna James and Heiruspecs: Long Distance from Live to Disk

Chris Godsey covers two new Minnesota-made CDs, and finds them good but suffering by comparison with the in-person versions.

JoAnna James

Before buying the new records by JoAnna James and Heiruspecs, go see each act live. Bear witness as James, a pleasant white girl from St. Paul, unleashes an enormous voice that aches, wails, and conjures the essence of sex like she’s channeling Otis Redding. Get your mind blown by Heiruspecs: two intense MCs weaving a crystal clear lyrical flow through narcotic live beats.

Then buy James’ self-titled disc and Heiruspecs’ A Tiger Dancing (on Razor & Tie). They’re both worth listening to; they also, to varying degrees, fall short of their creators’ live shows.

James’ warm guitar and vocals are expertly rendered by Tom Herbers of Third Ear Recording, in Minneapolis. But rarely does a record capture the awesome longing that imbues James’ delivery when she and her guitar are alone on a stage. Her singing voice seems to create a different person when she lets loose. Polite between-songs banter segues into disarming power and sensuality. One night at Beaner’s Café in Duluth, she covered a Redding tune with enough power to raise goosbumps. She doesn’t physically or vocally bump and grind, and she rarely sings about sex—no graphic or even suggestive lyrics–but sweat and skin and insistent desire are palpable in that voice.

The Voice shows up on her record in “Echoes of You,” when she wails, “Hey baby / you are so real / that when I woke up in a strange place / you were smiling in the half-light.” It’s occasionally there in “Ride.” All that passion helps her convey the rage that pervades “Privilege” and “Over Me,” a vicious fist swung at a substance-abusing dad.

Still, trite sentiments—transparent, powerfully sincere, and saccharine—leech attention from James’ amazing vocal instrument with frustrating frequency. “Mama’s Song,” the second song on the disc, is full of treacly lines like, “Oh my mama, I want you to know / I’d do anything for you / I’d walk across fire / to keep you from feeling blue / Oh, you’ll never know, how much you helped me through / and that is precisely why I am wishing a happy Mother’s Day to you.” The song gains significance when thrown into relief by “Over Me,” but it and a few other spots in the disc seem like they belong on a recording for family only, not for the public.

On A Tiger Dancing (recorded by Joe Mabbott at the Hideaway, in Minneapolis), Heiruspecs masterfully melds tight rhymes and head-nodding beats into an hour of thoughtful hip-hop. That’s a unique in a genre where many records are sketchy collections of good stuff and garbage. The only aspect of their live show that doesn’t translate to CD is its visual energy.

MCs Felix and Muad’Dib enunciate every well-chosen word and bounce syllables off their band’s beats with unwavering intensity. They both lay down many memorable lines, including Muad’Dib’s “maaan I ain’t the right personality type / to kick some yada yada hype / for y’all to pretend to like / despite the fringe benefits / penning this is my life,” from “Get Down.” On the title track, Felix drops, “no cheap tricks, no frills and no thrills / just straightforward head-noddin’ we provide y’all / make other similar crews break apart like a tribe called / my quest to find peace with streets through beats that won’t cease is at the very least a beast / I feast on a break then I take my aim / they just look sorta good / they got Kournikova game.”

“Heartstrings” and “Lie to Me” show more of Muad’Dib’s serious skills at making music with words. Felix’s verses on “It Takes” and “I’m Behind You” are lovely illustrations of his ability to tell deep stories without sacrificing the integrity of his flow.

Music geeks will have fun finding a song in 6/4 time. Everyone might be shocked at 1:42 of a particular song, when it abruptly shifts to sounding like a lost track from Outkast’s The Love Below.

Bassist Twinkie Jiggles, keyboardist dVRG—who, according to the group’s Web site, trained at the New England Conservatory of Music–and drummer Peter Leggett keep the soundtrack simultaneously mellow and aggressive, bright and ominous. They’re constantly present, but never in the way, and even though Felix and Muad’Dib can rock a mic right, it’s obvious that their band is at least half the reason they sound so nice.