James Justin & Co.
Dark Country

On his new album, Dark Country, local songwriter James Justin Burke definitely creates a mood. While it can be repetitive and a little slow at times, the over-arching feeling works; the mood is fully formed.

As with his 2010 solo debut Southern Son, So Far, Burke tracked the new songs at Plowground Productions on Johns Island.

With relatively sparse accompaniment from Burke’s “company” — Bailey Horsley on banjo, Tom Propst on bass, and Dave Vaughan on mandolin — the record eases in and out of the eardrums with a softness that drifts into the background and then crawls back to you.

The opening track, “City Light Strings,” sets the acoustic, slow, linear quality that continues throughout the album as Burke sings in his restrained monotone, “Throw down your heart/You wear on your sleeve.”

Several of the tracks follow a similar path, with Burke’s words delivered in a straight line, from point A to point B, helped along by the occasional mid-song instrumental flourish. His voice does nothing fancy, as his range is virtually nonexistent, but it fits the songs.

On the strongest track, “Song for the Lost,” an agonizingly slow beat drips along, and Burke asks plaintively, pausing between each word, “Oh Devil/Let’s make a deal/This will hurt/Before it heals.” The slide-guitar solo drags out each note to its ultimate usefulness, multiplying the sadness and emphasizing the authenticity. It is a microcosm of the album, showing the purposeful creation of an extended feeling.

The title track stands out as well, moving a little faster with a continuous guitar line and almost rapid percussion, but the lines are still delivered in short bursts, each coming out at mathematically precise angles, making the song one big square, one solid sound. The dire nature of the lyrics continues as Burke bemoans the promise of an awful fate with slow resignation: “No place to run and hide/X marks the spot where you sign/No one gets out clean/It’s a cold and dark country.”

“Simple Love” and “Love Me Too” are generic love songs, and they take the scary edge off the album. But while they’re pretty, they don’t match the intensity of the darker songs, and they feel almost too happy to be included.

Burke doesn’t work from a dynamic range of emotions, so he’s often stuck with that mathematical, monotone delivery. While it works so well with the overall feeling of most of these songs, it could use a little variation. However, there is something to be said for realizing your limits and finding a way to express yourself in an effective, realistic way. And he’s done just that. (jamesjustinmusic.com

James Justin and Co. are currently touring the Rockies and the Southwest. They return to the Carolinas in July.

“Dark Country” music video from David Keller on Vimeo.