Not Exotic: Truth in Advertising.
That, of course, is the draw of this humble, stately recording, and why it found its way onto so many of those lists. It's just nine honest, carefully crafted, pitch-perfect songs about human relationships, pulled off well enough to recall the works of Nick Drake and Elliot Smith. Like those songwriting icons, Alex James and Dolorean (who play the Neighborhood Theatre next Wednesday) seem to have emerged from nowhere fully formed.
The 26-year-old James began recording what became his debut in December 2001, with Portland producer Jeff Saltzman (Stephen Malkmus, Death Cab for Cutie). Joined by Raleigh transplant Ben Nugent on drums and The Standard's Jay Clarke on keys, James set out to record most of the instruments simultaneously, resulting in a very organic feel and lots of long nights.
They then shopped it around in futility (they'll be selling an earlier, unreleased disc on this tour).
"We had gotten so many rejections from so many labels that I figured we were going to be fighting a real uphill battle with critics, too,"James said by phone between Midwest dates in Colorado Springs and Omaha.
But Yep Roc's decision to pick up the disc was a portent of what was to come: "There's a wisdom and timelessness to Al's songs that go far beyond his years," the label's Angie Carlson said.
The skeptical would hardly expect her to say otherwise. But when finicky publications like The New York Times and The Onion's AV Club praised the record for its songcraft and honesty, cynicism suddenly seemed to miss the point entirely -- a pretty rare event in indie rock circles.
"There's a lot of back-patting and not too much serious crafting of songs" in the indie music world, James said. The same cannot be said of Not Exotic, which is chockfull of fecund metaphors, striking imagery and inventive narrative twists and turns. No surprise, then, that James graduated Willamette College in Salem, OR, with an English degree and wrote his thesis on poet John Keats.
Musically, James has mentioned Drake, Smith and early Neil Young as influences, but he also cites a chance encounter with Wilco's 1996 double disc, Being There, as a moment that restored his faith in the art of songwriting.
"It was one of those records I bought without knowing anything about it and it just seemed like I was hearing a quality songwriter again and an honest singing voice and vocal delivery," James said. "And that was exciting for me because it seemed like I hadn't for a long time."
You get an idea of James' mature writing style by delving into a few of the subtly accented songs -- usually with a Wurlitzer, mandolin or piano -- on Not Exotic. The disc opens with the cello-driven "Morningwatch," a meditation on the insomnia of the guilt-ridden which, in a live setting, uses touring guitarist David Parker's lap steel to recreate the string lines.
Two waltzes at different tempos follow. "Traded for Fire" chronicles one friend's betrayal of another over a woman ("I gave her my death and stole from her life"), and "Jenny Place Your Bets" uses a card game as a metaphor for a decaying love affair ("Your face says a full house but I think you're bluffing/Because when I start losing is when I start cheating").
James' honesty explores the pros and cons of envy and desire, too, particularly on "So You're a Touring Band Now," during which he expresses his own selfish hurt at a musician friend's success, and on "Hannibal, MO," the inspiration coming from his third-wheel vantage point watching two good friends fall in love.
"I was feeling pretty disconnected from relationships myself, but was just excited for two people to be feeling the way that they were," James laughed.
That's James -- and his music -- in a nutshell: he can be wistful and serious about his art, yet prone to hearty laughter at the irony and fallibility inherent in the human condition. There is no shtick, no secret agenda, no bells and whistles, and no buzz -- except the one you get from hearing the lost art of song craft done this well.
Dolorean plays the Neighborhood Theatre next Wednesday. The show starts at 8pm, with The Houston Brothers and Gold Coast opening. Tickets are $8.