When Jeb Loy Nichols issued Parish Bar in the early part of 2009, he claimed it was an in-between recording, one that was an amalgam of bits and pieces that would have to do until he could record a "proper" album. Funny thing, though, it turned out to be one of his finest outings because of the diversity of its tracks and the overall looseness of the proceedings. That said, his statements pointing to his forthcoming project all come to fruition here. Strange Faith and Practice was recorded with his own septet and a string section. It's deeply focused around certain themes, moods, and feelings (these are all love songs), and comes off as a seamless piece of work. Recorded and mixed by Benedic Lamdin and bassist Riaan Vosloo, this is the most organic-sounding record Nichols has ever made - and that's saying something, because all of his previous offerings have been warm and intimate. The instruments sound live and cut from the floor, and on certain tracks - such as the beautifully spooky "The Day That Never Came" - it even feels as if he used his original scratch vocal in the final mix. The use of saxophones, trumpets, flutes, Rhodes piano, and Wurlitzer gives the set more of a jazz feel than anything he's recorded before. Keyboardist Jennifer Carr shines here, as she is Nichols' main support; her embellishments from classic jazz to classical music - check her gorgeous solo piano intro on "Can't Stay Here" - lend a sense of weight and purpose to these lithe yet nocturnal songs. Other standouts on the set include the opener, with its shuffling brushed drum kit and Mark Hanslip's saxophone solo seeming to hover about Nichols' vocal, and the shimmering shuffle of the title track, with Jonny Spall's baritone saxophone leading an entire horn section that includes Hanslip and trumpeter Fulvio Sigurta. Hanslip's tenor solo is laid-back but intricate as Carr and bassist Vosloo find room to push him a bit further. "Cruel Winter" is a dark number where Nichols is accompanied by strings, bass, and piano; it's a slow and tempered balancing act that furtively walks between the two poles of torch songs and country barroom weepers. "If I Can Come Home to You" is a straight-up midtempo jazz ballad with incredible kit work by Tim Giles. This is an unabashed love song, painted by low strings, Carr's acoustic piano, and the skittering yet elegant breaks by Giles. Strange Faith and Practice is the most sophisticated of Nichols' eight albums. It points in a new direction, to be sure. It's poignant, graceful, and lyrically polished and poetic. These 13 songs push the envelope even further than Parish Bar did, though it's less diverse musically. This is the record that would, were there any justice in the music biz, garner Nichols a new look by old hats and the fresh ears of newcomers. It's beautiful, quite literally, from start to finish.