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First Listen: Jose James, 'While You Were Sleeping'

Jose James' new album, <em>While You Were Sleeping</em>, comes out June 10.
Janette Beckman
Courtesy of the artist
Jose James' new album, While You Were Sleeping, comes out June 10.

When the spirit of Nirvana surfaces in a song, the artist paying tribute almost always shares style points with that treasured band. The hair is shaggy, the clothes a little ragged; the lineage unfolds, relatively neatly, from punk to the present. Imagine, however, a jazz-trained vocalist fluent in hip-hop's vocabulary, laying down a track as ferociously driven as "In Bloom," but with the negative-ion cool of "Heart Shaped Box." That's what New York singer-songwriter Jose James does with his band in "Anywhere U Go," just one of the fascinatingly recombinant songs on his new album, While You Were Sleeping.

While You Were Sleeping doesn't engage in overt reinterpretation the way James' friend Robert Glasper did, for example, when he covered "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Instead, it's a celebration of the musical birthright James (who was born in 1978) claims as a cosmopolitan quick learner on the later end of Generation X. Much of the album's rock feel comes from the work of new band member Brad Allen Williams, whose guitar work ranges from the undeniable Jimi Hendrix homage that kicks off "Angel" to the Edge-like chromatics of "Bodhisattva." The presence of Williams shifts the mood of James' band, whose deep psychic attunement made 2013's No Beginning No End such a smooth experience. Drummer Richard Spaven hits more in the center sometimes, while keyboardist Kris Bowers plays with Radiohead-style atmospherics. These songs are more direct than James' earlier material in some ways, and more experimental in others, while remaining grounded in a soulful groove.

James makes his music's exploratory nature explicit in lyrics that elaborate richly on his fascination with the energetic interface of body and soul. Well schooled in the seductive arts, James offers excellent love jams in "UR the 1" and "xx." He's seeking a higher power, or at least some kind of universal connection, in "Bodhisattva" and "4 Noble Truths." James' longing for inner peace avoids New Age cliché because, as a soul singer, he never abandons sensuality; his love-man act reaches uncommon levels of tenderness because, as a seeker, he refuses to get stuck in sex-talk clichés.

The threads of James' musical consciousness interweave in the six-minute title track. Starting as an Alice in Chains-style blues built around acoustic guitar, the song's structure breathes itself bigger. Electronics and subtly off-kilter harmonies thicken the music's aura as Spaven's sharp drumming keeps it all from drifting into a haze. Within this complex setting, James sings of a romance derailed and a spirit — the singer's own — seeking recovery in solitude. "I'll return when things have changed," he sings. "Live and die and born again." Jose James is proving adept at reincarnation. Who knows what his next life will be?

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.