Liner Notes, no. 12: James Wallace and The Naked Light ~ More Strange News from Another Star

Artist: James Wallace and the Naked Light
Album: More Strange News From Another Star
Author: Shannon Cleary
Date: July 14th, 2011

Yeah. I think I prefer singing in falsetto. I like the way it sounds. It doesn’t sound like my
natural voice. It sounds like a character. If you’ve ever sang in falsetto, you know that
your throat is between your voice and your mouth. In a standard voice, you sing from
your belly. And when you sing in a falsetto, you’re blocking that. It gives it a filter. It
gives it a character. It’s less revealing. –Cass McCombs

For the longest time, James Wallace existed as Powhatan folklore to me. I had just started
my first restaurant gig and his name came up frequently. As it turned out, I was working
with several kids that had grown up with Wallace. There were stories about his denied
admission into the VCU Music program over absurd circumstances. There were stories
about his departure to Tennessee to pursue music. It wouldn’t be until a few years back
where I would meet him in person to discuss a show that I “sort of” booked at Rumors
(I’d give more credit to Taylor Burton of the wonderful Coald Toast and The OK Bird
fame for setting up that show ages ago).

There was also a period of time where despite every friend of mine declaring genuine
accolades for Wallace’s music, I was still just a casual listener. His songs would sit on
my desktop and after a few listens, they remained hidden. With More Strange News from
Another Star, this all changed.


The record appears to be predicated on travel. It’s process allowed it to travel between
Tennessee and Virginia in order to help the songs breathe properly. In Tennessee, his
longtime collaborators Kevin Dailey and Kai Welch found a familiar home in Wallace’s
music. Returning to Virginia, he would seek the assistance of Matt White and Pinson
Chanselle (of Spacebomb Records fame). Whether it was intended or not, the songs
greatly benefit from the contemplative distance. I can imagine that while going from
state to state, there were moments made obvious in regards to directions lyrically and
musically throughout More Strange News from Another Star.

Where McCombs argues above on how the use of a falsetto can provide one with a new
identity and avoid revealing too much, I may disagree in the case of Wallace. I think in
his penchant for identifying his voice with a higher pitch, he belongs in the family of
explanations explored by the likes of Bruce Springsteen. Years ago, Springsteen ventured
through a three-hour solo set at the Richmond Coliseum. At one point, he attempted to
explain why men would ever decide to sing in a higher range. Springsteen seemed to
believe that it started in the way most things do. It started as a result of romance. By
reaching for those notes, it was a way of musically telling a woman that you were willing
to meet her halfway. It’s an interesting idea that I consider from time to time. I don’t
think Wallace’s music can be explained in simple terms. Of course, there are instances of
romance, apocalyptic notions as the world passes and symptoms of travel. I don’t think
Wallace considers approaching any of these subjects under simple pretense. It’s more a

matter of designing a musical identity in each of these tracks that never feels confined or
lacking a unique voice. So while Wallace may have more in common with the likes of
McCombs as opposed to Springsteen, there are enough arguments to support both ideas.


While “This Wind’s Too Cold” is the beginning, the record takes shape with “Colored
Lights.” In the declaration of kicking down a door, it’s abrupt and straight to the point.
As the song delves deeper and deeper into it’s protagonist’s persona, “Colored Lights”
reveals a person broken by romantic quandaries and desiring the distance found in
surrounding fog. In this fog, the lights break through with the illuminating hum of
their familiar hues. The song also deals with the literal and figurative idea of flights.
In one sense, a fall can mean a descent into madness. On the other hand, it can literally
mean throwing oneself down a flight of stairs to reach the bottom. It’s a difficult
delineation to observe accurately, but I find the idea of flight to be contained in the idea
of ascending madness. To me, that’s a stronger payoff for a song like “Colored Lights”
than immediately stating the obvious and announcing one’s insanity in a tailored, cliché
fashion.

As I mentioned earlier, More Strange News from Another Star may be about several
things. One of its main focuses is travel and “Worse Things Have Happened” is a first
sign. It shows a design in the human condition of how the worst has yet to come. In our
simpleton overreactions, we fail to realize how easy it is to overcome. This is a basic
concept that is steeped in the lore of ancient musical tradition. This school of thought is
prominent in Wallace’s persona. It’s another trait of this record that shows how Wallace
takes the lessons learned from tradition and exemplifies their principles to develop a
unique sound. The noisiness present in “Worse Things Have Happened” achieves this in
strides.

There’s a line in a song by one of my favorite songwriters called “Miss Ferguson.” In this
tune, Cory Branan declares his love for a woman twice his age by telling her that he can’t
wait until the southern kicks in. The idea behind this sentiment is that he anticipates the
moment in which weight may settle in, but he knows that he will stick around through
and through. With More Strange News From Another Star, the weight in question is
when Wallace submits himself to the south in exchange for musical exuberance. I think
the moment on the record that displays this in spades is “The Wire (Reprise)/Kicked
Down The Road.” In going with the theme of travel, the tune expresses many ideas
about the life of a touring musician. There is the feeling of walking endlessly on the
proverbial tightrope as you take one of the greater chances of all. There is the struggle
between being embraced for your art on the road and the more likely symptoms of being
dismissed as you continue on your path to whatever we define as “home.” This has it
all and while determining that anything should be defined as “southern” in the case of
Wallace is beside the point. The idea of a “southern” tendency settling in has more to do
with an acknowledgment. This is that it was never a choice when it came to who he was
to become. He was always meant to make music and that weight found in the acceptance
of this is what makes the struggles on the road seem not so bad. As he put it earlier on,
worse things have happened to the human race.

More Strange News from Another Star builds on the identity that Wallace has been
growing into for ages now. While I Smile All Day, I Smile All Night lays the foreground,
I truly believe this is a record where we get to see him come into his own. Although, the
idea of “home” when it comes to artists like Wallace is forged by the road continuously
traveled, I can only hope that “home” could come to mean Richmond, Virginia if even
for just a single night’s performance.

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