She’s a New York singer who’s done the Broadway thing, and she has a new album out. Her name is Morgan James and the album is the first one she’s done as an independent artist, titled Reckless Abandon. I stumbled across her stunning vocals one evening while binging on Postmodern Jukebox videos (including an orchestral version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” which 30,561 people have granted the thumb of approval). I had the distinct pleasure of listening to Reckless Abandon on a rainy morning.
The album begins with a blast of horns, troubadours announcing a majestic arrival. “Up in Smoke” is energizing like a complicated liquefied beverage. It prepares you for an album of impressive vocal range and funky rhythms. The next track, “Unworthy,” features vocals with a pop of modernity over a synth beat. It feels light, like really nice mosquito netting. The lyrics poke at that slumbering beast that rouses from time to time to niggle you with doubt, but the beat protects you from anything that beast could drowsily snarl at you. This track is a prophylactic.
In “By My Side,” Morgan’s voice flits, floats, spirals, and swoops. Like someone with poor circulation acquiescing to the steamy solidness of a hot beverage between their cold cupped hands, she sings the highs artfully and dips into the lows with comforting certainty. Meanwhile, the beat brings to mind brick surfaces and bouncing basketballs. “By My Side” communicates a meme that appears universally in the human experience, “I don’t need to run / I don’t need to hide / Because I’ve got you by my side.”
“Lifted” starts with a smooth beat. Morgan comes in, singing in the second person about being “lifted,” and she taps into the magic inherent in the four-syllable word with nice use of elevator and detonator. The vocals are belted in such a way I wonder how much effort it would take for Morgan to break glass with her voice. Hours and even days after the first listen, the song reverberates in my mind as I pedal on two wheels past the factories, breweries, and iglesias of South Charlotte.
As if offering a rope to someone hanging on the edge of a cliff, in “Making up for Lost Love” Morgan lets out the lyrics bit by bit in smooth vocals. The more intimate vocal style contrasts with the let-it-all-hang-out style of “Lifted,” urging the listener to lean in and pay attention. Then comes the show stopper. “Ransom” is slow and dripping with soul. The track moves along slowly but surely, with piano and gentle percussion behind Morgan’s expressive – and impressive – vocals. Her voice paints a picture as she produces the words, “I paid / I paid / I paid / But you killed me anyway.” If this is how she sings when she’s feeling down, I wonder what magical heights her vocal muscles can reach when she’s feeling good. As the song winds up before winding down, Morgan’s voice builds gradually, from the depths (sullen and thick) to a bone-chillingly [in a good way] awesome performance. With just “Ransom” alone, Morgan James has achieved the sort of mind-brain connection that Soviet villains in old movies might have attempted with technology (and montage).
If “Ransom” was the sandwich, “Jenny” would be the pickle: triangular and somewhat discordant with the previous track, but on its own, a good song. Morgan’s vocals are flawless as she delivers the saga of a woman who has always been “out of reach.” The songwriting on this track is impeccable; I do not doubt that Morgan could make it in any genre she chose. The vocal artistry that blues and soul permit provide the perfect home for Morgan, and “Jenny” is evidence. “No Faith” marches the album determinedly forward, with vocals progressing from singular to multitudinous as the lyrics distance Morgan from paired to singledom. The further she gets from that relationship, the stronger she becomes. That’s equilibrium for you.
As “Pity” begins, the emotion imbued in the first words is so complex, you just have to keep listening. The song simmers like julienned vegetables bobbing in steaming salted water. Keep it going too long, you’ll end up with mushy vegetables. But done just right, and the result is perfection. Morgan’s vegetables are definitely not mushy. She uses half steps to pull at the heartstrings and engage the auditory cortex. A brief break with sultry brass adds a layer of ambiance to the tune. Just knowing that some truly loud and fantastic vocals are within reach but never used gives “Pity” a quiet power, like a stained wood accent wall.
“You Thought Not” is the kind of song you sing forcefully while wearing the pants that are so old and out of fashion the only time you wear them outdoors is to take the trash out. The song begins with a slow beat and gentle contemplative mood-setting notes. The lyrics look back on a day when the sun shone bright but left Morgan feeling sunburnt. (It happens when you least anticipate prolonged exposure to harmful rays.) “We used to be a good time / You took me for a long ride / I thought about forever / I thought we had a shot,” she sings, distancing herself grammatically from a partnership that went sour with every sighed word. The song ends with backing vocals that hold so much power, they breathe life into the song, like a serendipitous tailwind breathing life into flagging sails.
A beat with the clean simplicity of machine wash clothing laid over simple chords provides the backdrop for Morgan to bare her restless soul In “Need Somebody.” Like a python digesting a small mammal, the vocals stretch, expand, and retract in a beautiful dance between the verses and chorus. With vocals like these, no matter what she needs, surely nothing is out of reach for Morgan James. The album ends with the title track. The first bars of “Reckless Abandon” are pure fun, like the pop of pomegranate seeds on an August afternoon and going out in shoes that you know will hurt your feet but that’s beside the point. The vocals are luscious and then they are more luscious, joined by the horns for a big blue bang. This is a song made for flouncing. They could sell yogurt with this song. Yogurt: perhaps the most complicated of the dairy products to shill in this country.
Reckless Abandon, as an album, is a masterpiece of vocals as perfected as the firing in a Lamborghini’s cylinders and songwriting as sweet and well-crafted as an artisanal doughnut. “Ransom” is the standout on the album; it is brimming with introspection and features that magical marriage of superhuman vocals and astute songwriting that so many seek but so few attain. Morgan James is a hardworking woman with talent that can span the genres, the ages, and the tastes that make all us music lovers such diverse and discerning listeners. Hear her music, see her live, witness something sublime.