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Bitter Pill *
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  • The singer/songwriter's first full-length studio effort, Bitter Pill, arrives one-and-a-half years after his 12-track Capitol Records debut, Live at Whelans, which featured a solo Gavin James performing with only an acoustic guitar. The intimate setting and his impassioned delivery landed the recording in the Top 15 in his homeland of Ireland, as well as on the Dutch album chart. In a reversal of many artists' early discographies, Bitter Pill is essentially a studio version of that record, offering all but one its songs. ("Great Escape," an under-three-minute whistling ditty, didn't make the studio cut.) Two new tunes are added to the set list in its place: the part ballad, part folky foot-stomper "Remember Me" and the title track, "Bitter Pill." Carrying a soul-infused melody and vocal delivery, that song is reinforced with hymn-like, unison voices as James laments a lost love. For the most part, the LP's arrangements are sparse and loyal to the balladeering spirit of the writer's songs. "For You," which has one of the most affecting vocal performances, employs faint keyboards, guitar, kick drum, and rim-clicks that never draw attention from the singer's serenade to loneliness. More rousing arrangements, such as the full band and backing chorus on "Coming Home," offer variation but rarely quite capture the passion of the live versions. Exceptions are the few uptempo moments, such as "Say Hello," which adds texture via piano, drums, and extra guitars without trading intimacy that was never really a quality of the bubbly tune to begin with. James wrote (or co-wrote) all of the songs on both long players with the exception of his cover of the Magnetic Fields' "The Book of Love," written by Stephin Merritt. This proves to be a highlight of Bitter Pill, kept simple and sincere, and rightfully earns the closing spot on both albums. ~ Marcy Donelson
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