Sea Glass is Susan James’s sixth record, and is so good you’ll be looking to see what you missed with the previous five. The new record has a Southern Californian lilt and mixes folk, psych and elegant pop into its enticing brew, all stirred by master arranger Sean O’Hagan of High Llamas. Susan sang backing vocals on two HL albums in 2002 and 2003, when O’Hagan first suggested that they work together but it’s only now that it’s happened, O’Hagan persuading Susan to write on keyboard as well as her favoured guitar. And he’s also arranged a broad instrumental landscape to play against, given additional colour by strings, flute harpsichord, marimba and various keyboards including mellotron and “Italian darting organ”. You’ll hear classic folk tones of Joni Mitchell and Linda Perhacs but also some of the complex pop of Stereolab (the late Mary Hansen was a mutual friend of O’Hagan and James, and her influence seems to infect some of these songs).
'Poseidon’s Daughter' is a Perhacs-style brilliant opener, which grows richer and more complex as it continues. The personification of peace, Eirene, the daughter of Poseidon, seems to be a typical Californian theme, together with the waters and pollution that populates the song. The watery imagery continues in the title track and the final track, the languid liquid tones of ‘Last Song’. The acid-folk ‘Ay Manzanita’ – a flute lover’s wet dream - tells the story of the women who served as ‘soldaderas’ in the Mexican Revolution while ‘Truth Or Consequences’ is beautifully arranged sunshine pop that critiques modern life: “no boundaries for just how cruel we are”. You’ll be amused and amazed by the strange instrumentation on ‘Tell Me, Cosmo’ and just amazed by the Stereolabby ‘Awful Lot’.
These might have been typical Topanga singer-songwriter landfill but the richness and variety of Susan’s voice, matched to the inspired arrangements of O’Hagan who knows just when to strip it back and when to add texture, make this a revelation. As her first album was released in the late 1990s, courtesy of the generosity of Apple computer designer Burrell C Smith, it’s impossible to call her a new discovery but Sea Glass is as big a thrill as discovering a brilliant unknown psych album from some dusty recess. Revelatory.