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Strong And Simple As A 'Shadow On The Ground'

Middle-aged and without patience for the niceties of image or excuses, James Hand cuts to the chase on most of the songs on his new album Shadow On The Ground. Take 'Don't Depend On Me' — a simple declaration of facts. The message, as written by Hand himself, is devastatingly blunt: "You knew from the start," he sings to a woman he's involved with, "it's her not you in my heart/So don't depend on me for anything that true love was meant to give." What a charmer, huh?

The thing is, James Hand is charming. His version of the Nat King Cole hit 'Mona Lisa' partakes of the Mexican country rhythms the singer grew up with in Central Texas, and the arrangement, combined with Hand's fluid phrasing, can make you forget Nat King Cole's indelible version, at least for a little while. That's no small achievement. In fact, this is the kind of pop-music cover that no one else with a country-music record contract is making these days. It's out of time, out of hand, if you will.

The first track on the album, 'Don't Want Me To,' is a very typical and very good example of the sort of honky-tonk music that Hand has spent decades playing in small-to-medium dancehalls throughout the Southwest and beyond. His phrasing on 'Don't Want Me To' is pure Hank Williams, and so is the sentiment of the lyrics — his lover doesn't want him, and more fundamentally, he doesn't want himself.

On another song, 'Floor to Crawl,' Hand demonstrates a shift into a slightly higher register and a hitch in his inflections — he's a pro at making small adjustments based on his material. And that material is very good in this case. 'Floor to Crawl' is a song that allows for maximum, howling dissolution and poignancy. Hand's steel guitar provides a slippery floor for his voice to crawl across in that song; it's a typical example of how tightly constructed this loose-limbed album is, thanks to producers Ray Benson, long-time frontman of Asleep at the Wheel, and Lloyd Maines, who's played in Joe Ely's band and also produced some of the Flatlanders' albums.

James Hand is no doubt an eccentric — he's included a salute to a bird he likes in a song called 'The Parakeet,' and it's not a novelty tune. He's made his hometown outpost in Texas the center of a stark universe that you're invited to visit. Or not. It's up to you, because Hand isn't changing his style for you or anyone else.

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