Review Summary: An apparent crisis of identity makes Jessie James a hit-or-miss affair, where the singer vacillates between radio-ready Top 40 smashes and dead-in-the-water balladry or misguided genre affairs.
Let’s get this straight right off the bat – Jessie James is not a country singer. Yes, the marketing campaign paints her as Nashville’s newest painted-on jeans vixen, and her powerful vocals do tend to have a sort of twang about them, but James is a dyed-in-the-wool pop singer through and through. Her debut self-titled is country in the same way Taylor Swift’s latest could be billed “country” – it pays lip service to strong-willed women in the Carrie Underwood vein and throws the occasional banjo lick in here and there. That being said, James’ apparent crisis of identity makes Jessie James a hit-or-miss affair, where the singer vacillates between radio-ready Top 40 smashes and dead-in-the-water balladry or misguided genre affairs.
Alas, the biggest problem with Jessie James is that it builds up all of its glorious pop goodwill within the first few songs and then squanders it throughout the remainder of the record. Now, James is hardly the first artist to be accused of making a top-heavy album, but the drop in quality between, say, the first third of the record and everything else, is blindingly obvious. All this does is make a solid, if unspectacular, pop effort a grinding disappointment by the time the last song rolls around. Sequencing is still important, no matter how much you can belt it out or how good you look in your newest music video.
And rest assured, the 21-year-old James can indeed belt it out while looking quite agreeable, and does both in first single “Wanted.” It’s a fantastic pop single, one dripping with James’ sex appeal, saucy lyrics like her repeated commands to “put your lips on my mouth” framing a massive hook that builds up into a chorus worthy of her Aguilera-esque vocals. “Bullet” might be even better in the long run, a foot-tapping double-entendre that has a fairly awesome banjo riff. Just make sure you don’t put too much stock into the lyrics – when James brings out the immortal line “is that a gun in your pocket / or are you just happy to see me?,” it’s hard to suppress a cringe.
Most of the material here was co-written with Kara DioGuardi and Katy Perry, and some of the latter’s oddball charm (not to mention poor songwriting), shows up on tunes like the stilted “Psycho Girlfriend.” But James is at her best when she’s imitating Aguilera’s brazen sass on the rhyming verses of “I Look So Good (Without You),” perhaps the only tolerable real ballad on here, or milking her sex-kitten image on the twirling groove of future club sing-a-long “Blue Jeans.” Sadly, James purring “I homewreck in my blue jeans / I got it from my momma so I’m blessed in my blue jeans” is the tipping point of the record.
The rest of Jessie James is a series of cheap imitation efforts, beginning with the faux-country jam “My Cowboy” and featuring such low points as the cunningly titled “Big Mouth” and dreary, vanilla ballads like “Inevitable,” “Burnin’ Bridges” and the melismatic closer “Guilty.” Aside from the shimmering production of “Girl Next Door,” there’s nothing much to interest even the most casual Top 40 fan after “Blue Jeans.” For all her vocal chutzpah, James’ throaty proclamations wear thin after a while, especially since so much of the mix here features her voice almost unnaturally prominent above the instruments.
All problems with production and single-mindedness aside, the root of the problem with Jessie James is the lack of quality tunes. “Wanted” and “Bullet” seem to exhaust all the creative gas James and her team possess within the first six minutes, making Jessie James a worthy debut EP (if pop stars were into that), but a moderate failure as an album-length listen. Christina buttressed her bad-girl image with excellent pipes, and Underwood has the kind of songs that commercial gold are made of, but James finds herself in an unhappy medium – too risqué to be immediately accepted, not impressive enough to be anything more than a novelty.