People have been making pop and rock music for like 65 years now, so it’s rare when we come across something truly unique. Andrew James and The Steady Tiger, whose name is James von Minnen, are the two men responsible for the Polyphonic Spree-esque sound that comes out of “Red in Tooth and Claw”. This album has so much sound and energy packed into it that you’ll need to see with your own eyes that it’s only two people before you’ll actually believe it. When you have two world class instrumentalists playing together, it hardly matters that there are words in the songs at all, but the words are some of the most valuable aspects of this album.
For those of you that are familiar with the John Butler Trio (if not, do yourself a favor) and Ben Harper’s awesome lap steel stuff will find yourself right at home with Andrew James and The Steady Tiger. While Harper’s voice is often more expressive than his lyrics or music could ever be, the opposite is true with Andrew James, whose unique sound and style create an atmosphere with minor and major chords that clearly set the tone for the song. For example, the first track and one of my personal “song of the year” candidates, “Swansong”, begins seemingly without direction and then evolves into a sound that is angry, frustrated, and aggressive. Add in incredible lyrics about the current global political and environmental situation (the band is from South Africa) and you have a powerful song with intense lyrics and music that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The second verse: “And we choose the thieves and the liars who will govern,/ As they don their disguises and prey on the prizes we bought them./ And we’ll say that we didn’t know./ We’ll be know as the wicked the lazy, the crazy,/ the people that choose to be blind.”
There are artists, Jason Mraz for example, who often pack so many lyrics into a song that it’s hard to distinguish one verse from the next. While Mraz’s lyrics are fun, they’re often nonsensical (“We could keep chillin’ like ice cream fillin'”? Really?). Another gem from “Red in Tooth and Claw” is “Conversations with a Cobbler”, a lyrically complex and difficult song, but never rushed, never silly. Throwing a piano in with guitar and drums, James croons “And through the walls, the piano found a way out,/ Through the floorboards where the words that he heard just never could./ And he never told her he was a magician,/ before he confessed it she guessed it she could see by his gaze.” With lyrics and music that’s equally complex, it’s the kind of music that honestly takes dozens of listens or sustained concentration and focus to decipher completely.
“Don’t Look Down” shows off von Minnen’s uncanny ability to get more sound out of two hands and drums than should be possible. As you saw in the video above, his dexterity creates layers of sound that make it sound as though you’ve got a mini drum circle in your headphones. “Stories” is another atmospheric song, a nearly 7 minute ballad whose lyrics read like a chapter of a novel. “The stories you tell yourself may keep you warm,/ but you won’t see the lightning and you won’t hear the storm.”
This a live version of Andrew James playing “Stories” solo, using a loop to create the percussion:
There aren’t any skippable songs on this album, where they all, save one, hit 4 minutes with half of them being 6 minutes or longer. “Port Grosvenor”, the last track, shows a more mellow side, mixing some harmonica with socially and emotionally conscious lyrics. We haven’t reviewed or talked about a band, I don’t think, that has a better grasp on their own message than Andrew James and The Steady Tiger. They’ve created an incredibly cohesive and unique album, one that will undoubtedly go unnoticed by most, especially here in the US. And that, in itself, is a travesty.