There are many ingredients that lend to the favorable environment that makes Texas and Austin so complimentary for creativity when it comes to music. One important element that is often overlooked is the heavy presence of German culture in the region, especially in central and south Texas, as many German and Czech immigrants moved to the area right as Texas was coming into its own. Town names, architecture, bloodlines and lineage all hold the the remnants of this migration, and bubble up to the surface as influences in Texas-based music, from Conjunto and Tejano, to country.
Who better to draw upon those influences, and illustrate and emphasize them in a way that is expressive and sonically appealing than south Texas-bred, and Austin-dwelling singer and songwriter James Steinle. Not only does this young man have authentic German blood coursing through his veins that’s certified by his last name, he spent time growing up in Landstuhl, Germany, which gives him the unique perspective to be able to mine those German roots from deep in the heart of Texas.
Just go ahead and add James Steinle’s new album Cold German Mornings into the canon of cool Austin, TX projects that are indicative of the city’s creativity. It’s a concept record that may set its foundations in country, but is too ambitious to fool around with confining itself to any given genre, aside from being strongly inferred by roots, both in Texas, and from Deutschland, but in a way that feels strangely familiar as opposed to foreign.
Horns, strings, bells, clarinet, and other doo dads are called upon by James Steinle and producer Scott Davis to bring these songs to life as they conspire to tell a deeper story and set a cinematic mood for the listener. But don’t worry, the album doesn’t bog down in artsy interludes, nor is it overly burdened by unusual dialects. Sure, Steinle is captured singing in German in a few instances, and a couple of the songs veer much closer to some version of a Bavarian-infused jazz than anything else. But ultimately, this is a songwriting record given a unique spin.
Cold German Mornings also makes sure to supply ample moments of levity, like in the heart of the record with “Ein Schnapps, Ein Beer,” and “Zugspitze Boogie.” But it’s really the songwriting of “In Another Town” and “Cold German Mornings,” and the moody piano moments of “Drunken Moon” that make you feel like both Doug Sahm and Tom Waits would both probably nod in approval of this record, while “Lusitania” sees Steinle flex his storytelling chops about the infamous sinking.
And though not a “Christmas” record per se, Cold German Mornings still is the perfect release for this time of year. “Three Dark Kings” calls upon the Nativity story told through the eyes of Joseph, and “Christmas at a Brothel” is, well, about Christmas in a brothel. So it’s not exactly “Come All Ye Faithful,” but this is a record for the winter, and the moody moments around the Christmas holiday—sometimes lonesome and despondent, others hearthy, or even tipsy and joyous.
There are also moments on the record where the musical components called upon are probably less than ideal. On a shoestring budget and with COVID restrictions in place, they just couldn’t bring everything visualized for the record to life in its ideal state. Some elements, like the beat of “Ein Schnapps, Ein Beer,” make the 1’s and 0’s of the project pretty obvious, inhibiting some of the organic appeal of the music. But at the same time, it’s more forgivable for this particular record than others. They didn’t let budgetary restrictions out of their control inhibit their ambitiousness. There’s many more vibrant hues brought to this record compared to most standard country albums.
Cold German Mornings comes at a time when many music periodicals are two weeks past naming their best records of the year, while Austin projects are always treated as also-ran’s to the mother brain of the country industry in Nashville. But James Steinle—with some help from fellow promising new songwriter Juliet McConkey on harmony vocals—turns in a forward-thinking record right at the time it needs to be presented to the world for the material to sink in as intended. Perhaps too offbeat for some with its German accoutrements. But for others, Cold German Mornings will kindle that magic only the best music can.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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