James Halifko is a New Jersey-based singer-songwriter and musician. Halifko is “old school” folk music with contemporary content. His new release, Nature Innate, is a 12-track digital release-only album he says was “inspired by a PBS documentary ‘Legends of Folk: The Village Scene’ (which is) the place in the early 1960's where I began my singer songwriter experiences.”
Halifko is a “do-it-yourself” kinda guy. He says: “I play and sing all the parts on all my albums”. In fact, with the exception of his rock band Hard Rain (1981-82) he has always worked alone. This new release is no exception. He even handles the “orchestration, recording tech, mixing and mastering tech and artwork” himself.
Nature Innate features only “acoustic instruments and my voice” adding a list of his instruments: “my Martin D35 6 string guitar, my Sigma Martin D12-28 HB 12 string guitar, my vocals and harmonicas (Marine Band or blues harp) . . . Just as it was in the beginning . . . around 1963 when I was sixteen years old. It began with my commuting from Carteret, New Jersey to New York City for the Sunday gatherings in Washington Square Park in “The Village”.
The album opens on “Perpetual War”. It’s reminiscent of a classic college protest song from days of yore. Halifko says the songs are “about the human historical tendency to go to war.” It’s aptly followed by “Violence” which focuses how some groups of people have used violence to get what they want.
Perhaps to inject the album with some hope Halifko plays “(We) The People Can Speak”. Halifko, however, adds an ironic audio editorial on the way even Americans “view freedom of speech”. He says “the irony (is) that even in the United States there are people who seem to ignore the right granted in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
“Jump in the Machine” is a bit more creative here as Halifko comes at his audience with a fictitious portrayal of people becoming more machine-like. It’s a lyrical loss of humanity here that he says was “inspired (by) advances in technologies and the predicted coming of the ‘Singularity’ when humans create highly advanced artificial intelligence.”
The music often evokes another era and an atmosphere which seems to be his actual purpose on this album. Much like other artists of his time he includes a song inspired by the likes of India’s Gandhi and the recently late Nelson Mandela of South Africa. The indirectly tributary tune is titled “Friendly Transitions” although as is obvious to listeners it is not specifically about them.
Much like popular TV dramas, this album often draws on real life events. “Big Money”, for example, is rife with touches of recent financial fiascos. Halifko says the song is “inspired by the Ponzi schemes, ‘Bernie’ Madoff and others as well as the practices of large financial entities.”
He turns the mirror on society once more in “In a Hurry; In my Way” which reflects the sadder, selfish side of humanity. He tries to teach a lesson with “So Different” which has a twofold purpose. It speaks to the issue of the tolerance of others but, as Halifko states, it also “hints at deeper human traits echoing back to primitive times. Survival may have been determined by recognizing differences that translated into threats; this in turn evolved into social and cultural attributes.”
“Basic Needs” continues with Halifko’s signature sound. The message here, however, is universal and in fact reflects commonalities and a bit of liberalism. He says he came up with this cut after “realizing from experiencing contact with people around the world, living in Europe for a time and reading about history I see people everywhere seem to need and seek pretty much the same things in life beyond the veneer of customs and physical appearances.” He adds that it’s “also a statement that human basic needs should (and often can) be met if ‘The Haves’ would share with the ‘Have Nots’.”
The next number is “Rain in Winter” with is a personal piece in which he musically shares a bit of his “life long struggle with depression and anxiety.” He hopes that “others may see that they are not alone if they have experienced or are experiencing a similar condition.” “Perception and Fantasies” follows as Halifko concerns himself with “the flood of new science discoveries of how the human brain and mind works.” It’s inspired by the “mental limitations” of humanity as well as that which is ‘often heavily shaped by ingrain biological, social and cultural programming and influences.”
The album end-note is the “Critic’s Choice” here. “Affluenza” was your rockin’ reviewer’s first exposure to Halifko. It might not be any better or worse than any other track here but it initially sounded wonderfully raw, honest and simple and yet contemporary and current. Halifko says he drew upon “the light penalty prescribed by the judge in Texas who presided over the affluent teen Ethan Couch case (who) ran down and killed four people while under the influence of alcohol” and it’s “dedicated to Brian Jennings, 43, Breanna Mitchell, 24, Shelby Boyles, 21, and her mother, Hollie Boyles, 52.”
Overall, the work has an oft’times forgotten feel of sitting in a friendly coffeehouse or out of the way bar complete with a traveling troubadour spinning the headlines of the day into musical messages. James Halifko’s Nature Innate blends concerns of the day with the timeless musical traditions of yesterday and it won't cost you "Big Money".
My name is Phoenix and . . . that's the bottom line.