Canadian-born, New York City-based singer/songwriter and guitarist JBM wrote and recorded his sophomore album, 2012's Stray Ashes, in near isolation in Upstate New York. The cabin-in-the-woods songwriting sabbatical can't but draw him even more comparisons to Justin Vernon, as JBM's debut, 2009's Not Even in July, is an ultra-intimate indie folk work in the realm of Bon Iver's more commercially successful For Emma, Forever Ago. Where JBM's debut differs from Bon Iver and peers is in even sparer arranging, and in his comparatively effects-free vocals, making for a profoundly authentic sound. Stray Ashes deviates from this approach in some unsubtle ways, employing more vocal reverb, more effects, and more dense arrangements overall. Songs like "Only Now," with an energetic tempo, electric guitar, and full-on driving drums by Midlake's McKenzie Smith (who appears throughout the record); "Thames," with its layers of electric guitars and keyboards and active drums; and the effects-dense "Moonwatcher" were not in the palette of the first album. However, Stray Ashes is still controlled and poignant enough that the variation feels more like an evolution than a departure. The stillness that marked the debut is less profound, but the vocal darkness, melancholic quality, and intimate lyrics are still present in spades. The eerie longing of "Winter Ghosts" and the tranquil acoustic guitar and pedal steel performances on "You Always Keep Around" would fit nicely onto Not Even in July but don't diverge from the overall tone of Stray Ashes. Maybe instead of singing tenderly into the listener's ear, JBM is now singing face to face, but he's still a close talker.
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AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson