The Test Drive: James Holt – Sanguine On the Rocks
James Holt, a singer/songwriter from Manchester is receiving widespread attention for his unique blend of alternative rock and folk.
The twenty-two year old has produced a collection of songs which belie his age. This is a solo record in the truest sense of the phrase, with Holt having composed the songs, played all of the instruments and recorded and mixed the EP. James has already garnered the attention of world-renowned producer Brian Eno who described his music as “Brisk, funny, exciting. Great drumming….fresh and exciting to listen to”.
James performs regularly, both solo and with a band, at venues and festivals in towns and cities across the UK and recently performed solo at the Royal Albert Hall for the Music for Youth Proms 2015. He has received airplay on BBC Manchester and BBC Lancashire, Radio X, BBC Radio 6 and has been featured numerous times on Fresh On the Net’s FRESH FAVES. He has also received coverage on ‘Never Enough Notes’, The Unsigned Guide and the Manchester Evening News.
Track by Track:
The Mirror is a song of temptation and deception, from the perspective of the tempter himself, inviting you into his “domain beyond the looking glass”. Taking inspiration from Motown and northern soul, with glimpses of Brazilian bossa nova, The Mirror speeds along almost desperately, as if to show the tempter’s eagerness in ensnaring his victim. James and his band of ghouls begin the EP as ferociously as they mean to go on.
Sanguine On the Rocks
Sanguine On the Rocks is a tale of despair and redemption and is based on a real-life conversation between James and his friend. As James explains: “I saw my friend one day and he looked so down and tired, I didn’t know him well at this point but I could see right through it. I said: “Listen, I know how you feel. You have so much energy and you’re so willing to help other people that they just take advantage and use you. They just use your energy but give you nothing back and just leave you feeling drained”. He burst into tears. The song is a conversation in itself, although it’s only at the very end that the focus character speaks and claims redemption for himself, as the song says: “freedom cannot be given”.
On the song title: “’Sanguine’ is derived from the latin word for blood but also means confidence/energy. ‘Sanguine On the Rocks’ sounds like a drink so that’s where the sucking blood comes from. ‘On the rocks’ could mean a shipwreck or like an emotional breakdown which also relates to the story.
The complex rhythmic metre (constant alternate bars of 4/4 and 7/8) and harmonic ambiguity gives the piece a restless, agitated character and emphasises the song’s jittery personality. The track also features additional performances from Ben Richeton (trumpet), Joe Stevenson (trombone) and Daniel Thompson (baritone saxophone).
Tears Aren’t Enough
Tears Aren’t Enough is a song of repentance and mercy, or rather mercilessness, with all the psychedelic characteristics of Beatles’ Revolver and a pinch of funk. Like Sanguine On the Rocks, it is full of rhythmic restlessness but the band keeps the groove strong.
Contemplations has an angular quality, changing feel and mood quite suddenly. It is reminiscent of The Bends/OK Computer-era Radiohead with some Led Zeppelin thrown in for good measure. The drums are heavy, the vocals are rasped, the organ is filthy.
The character calls out and cries for help, but discovers that this will be a forever-answerless cry when he realises that everyone else is in the same position. The bridge section acts as a tonic to the bitter verses, accepting life as how it is while musically displaying psychedelic tendencies. Contemplations shows us the deepest thoughts of every man, it is James Holt at his darkest and most vulnerable.
And Then I Awoke
Easily the calmest track featured on this EP, And Then I Awoke tells the story of a character who’s in love with a person too perfect that she can only exist in his mind. She is impossibly perfect, as even the birds say that, to them, she is more beautiful that the return of spring. She is loved by all of nature and he is determined to find her no matter the cost.
The Rhodes gently groans, the backing vocal’s sedately hum, the ‘pocket-orchestra’ provides the calm, cascading backdrop as we are whisked away by this character’s love-dream. This continues until the music is resolved on a final major chord, which we are awakened to realise it was all just an illusion.
The Lost Boy No More
As the title of the song may suggest, this song is about discovery, with themes of restlessness, hope and redemption, running themes throughout this EP. It’s a song in two parts, the first depicts the story of someone who finds himself, and the second when two people find each other. There are many notable lines in this piece, the first “Unwilling to these sad shores” being the inspiration for the artwork, and every change in emotive tension is complemented by the instrumentation. James never shies away from the grandeur of strings, understandable as he is a cellist and performs each part himself.
This track, which was featured on Fresh On the Net’s FRESH FAVES, delivers the EP’s most tender moments and a provides a tranquil end to an otherwise wild and intense record.