In 2010, Casey James placed third on the ninth season of American Idol. While that was a relatively strong showing for the native Texan, it's even better if you consider that the winner and runner-up (Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox) have since been dropped by their record labels. James is a senior citizen by Idol standards - he turns 30 this year - and he's still more famous for his smile than his singing. So, there's quite a bit riding on this, his official debut.
The album follows an increasingly-grating industry trend on front-loading: the three best tracks are also the first three, and it's a considerably different record thereafter. The opener, The Good Life, celebrates life and luck in an exuberant arrangement filled with organ and high-hats. Leadoff single Let's Don't Call It A Night has a charming, sultry groove. Exchanging sharp Dobro twangs with understatedly suggestive lyrics, it's something Ronnie Milsap may have plucked for himself 30 years ago. The strongest track, though, with a sharp hook and a sense of urgency, is Crying on a Suitcase. Urging a foolish guy to apologize before their lover runs off, the big bass lines feel like a racing heartbeat. This song also aims to be about a moment rather than a "big" theme.
From there, the record can't decide what it wants to be: Drive paints James as a pedal-stomp swamper, while snoozers like Love the Way You Miss Me promise a sensitive lover to do the dishes. Neither of these costumes seems to suit James as an artist, who namechecks Stevie Ray Vaughan as his biggest influence. Tough Love and Miss Your Fire show positive signs of recovery and might make great starts for another album. But at that point the clock has run out.
James has delivered a very mixed offering here and will need to sweat it out to see if he can survive in the increasingly saturated post-Idol marketplace.