When we speak of New Orleans bands owing a debt to Tom Waits, more often it’s really to Kurt Weill. With My Graveyard Jaw, we mean Tom Waits. On much of Coming Winds, Michael James sings with Waits’ hard, phlegmy rasp, which is distracting. If there’s a pledge the city could stand to take, it’s to kill the father and spend a year not invoking Waits because there are so many musical voices here that don’t need to lean on his sound to get by.
The performances on Coming Winds, for example, show a band that is rhythmically assured as Denise Bonis’ fiddle goes in unpredictable directions. Their version of American roots music is engaging and artful from the opener, “Lucy Lu,” when James doesn’t employ the Waitsian voice. The title track is an instrumental that won’t leave bluegrass pros in awe of the technique, but the song has its own integrity and is compelling, even if James is strumming instead of picking his banjo.
Part of the strength of the album comes from the songs themselves, but a lot of credit goes to upright bassist Scott Potts, who produced the album. He gives the guitar and banjo sonic weight and rolls off some of the highs that make acoustic guitars sound scratchy and messy. As a result, there’s an appealing density as Potts chooses a sound that suits the material at the expense of folk piety—an overrated value in my books.
My Graveyard Jaw’s world is one of loneliness and ominous portents, but it’s also involving—more so when James leaves Tom Waits out of it.