James (1991)/Gold Mother (1991)
Sit Down/Come Home/Government Walls/God Only Knows/You Can't Tell How Much Suffering (On A Face That's Always Smiling)/How Was It For You?/Lose Control/Walking The Ghost/Gold Mother/Top Of The World
The mid-eighties spawned so many bands from Manchester, in the wake of the "Madchester" thing and the comparatively faceless, studenty, earnest-looking James were another. They weren't drugged up, or 'avin' it, or full of in-yer-face vulgar braggadocio. Anything but. For that reason, they virtually passed me by at the time. Yes, ok I was from a previous musical generation, being in my thirties by then, but the late teens/early twenties people I worked with liked this sort of thing. Their music was full of the requisite jangly guitars, pounding drums and radio-friendly hooks. Indeed, I have been able to sing along to parts of their best-known track, the totally infectious Sit Down, for years without knowing who it was, thinking it was Supergrass or Blur or some other Brit Pop band. Sorry for my ignorance but, for me, many of the Brit Pop bands seemed the same - as I said previously, faceless and studenty. The singer was called Tim Booth. Very rock 'n' roll.
So, I am writing this review from the point of view of a complete James virgin. Maybe that isn't a bad thing, though, as I am simply writing it as I hear it.
This eponymous album was actually their fifth release, (the group had quite a head-start over many of the other Brit Pop bands) and it was a US only amalgam of tracks. All of the tracks appear on the UK release, Gold Mother, but in a slightly different sequence. It began with the track that went totally stratospheric for them, the afore-mentioned Sit Down, guaranteed to get those "uni" students jumping around at halls-of-residence parties or summer festivals. I have to say that it a completely irresistible singalong number, full of joyous swing and an anthemic Waterboys-style sound. It sounds ludicrous to say that I have always loved it, given that I didn't know who it was, but it is the truth. I can't hear it without getting a vision of a sunny evening at a festival somewhere and girls in skimpy vests on their boyfriends' shoulders waving their arms in the air.
Actually, the track is not characteristic of the rest of the album at all, which has a much darker, more intense atmosphere.
Come Home taps into the contemporary Happy Mondays/Stone Roses dance rock vibe - full of programmed drum loops and similar keyboard dance music ones. The track is an intense, dense one, interjected by some searing, industrial guitar and topped off with a gritty vocal. If I didn't know it was James I would have thought it was The Happy Mondays or Black Grape. Government Walls is a sonorous, beguiling post punk grinder of a track, very much in the spirit of, say, ten years earlier. It has an evocative atmosphere to it and a great electric violin solo in the middle. The vocal is reminiscent of Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. God Only Knows is a frantic drum-driven number that has a vague feel of some of The Pogues' material on the rousing chorus. It ends in proper punk style.
The lengthily-titled You Can't Tell How Much Suffering (On A Face That's Always Smiling) also has a considerable post punk grind to it with some impressive, searing guitar too. The tough rock ambience continues on the riffy, almost Stonesy How Was It For You? Check out that cowbell and Keith Richards-esque guitar chops.
Lose Control is a haunting, sombre Joy Division-influenced offering with, once again, more post punk influence. If this album is anything to go by, James were more in the latter category than the carefree Brit Pop one. The fun of Sit Down is a bit incongruous in comparison with the rest of the material. This lower-key feel is to be found on the beautiful Walking The Ghost, a song enhanced by a lovely electric violin solo. The guitar has hints of U2's Bad about it too, in places, and a bit of Iggy Pop in his Bowie/Berlin phase as well.
Gold Mother is a strange, upbeat piece of brassy rhythm, with more echoey, sonorous vocals. There are Talking Heads influences at play here. The track outstays its welcome by a couple of minutes at the end, however. Top Of The World is one of those traditional end-of-album, low-key acoustic closing tracks. This has actually been quite an enigmatic, surprisingly inscrutable album that puts a gloomy veil over the smiling, shiny, happy face of Sit Down. The more hooky, poppy fare that James produced can be found on The Best Of James compilation. Tracks like the riffy and rousing John Lennon-ish tones of She's A Star, the energetic stomp of Laid, the swingy pop of Waltzing Along and the Brit Pop anthems of Destiny Calling and Ring The Bells are fine examples of such tunes. Then there is the U2-style drum sound of Say Something and Out To Get You. There is little brooding post punk influence to be found here, just that irrepressible Brit Pop joy.
Born Of Frustration/Ring The Bells/Sound/Bring A Gun/Mother/Don't Wait That Long/Live A Love Of Life/Next Lover/Heavens/Protect Me/Seven
After "breaking through" with their 1991 Gold Mother (UK) and James (US) albums, James attempted, successfully, to enhance their Brit Pop meets post punk sound by the use of a big brass sound (Andy Diagram's trumpet, basically). It instantly makes their singalong sound into something much bigger, moving from the student unions to the arenas and stadiums. The brass isn't on every track but appears regularly enough to characterise the album. It is not Southside Johnny-style bold brass, though, it is always subtly inserted. Although the previous album was a good offering, this one is light years ahead in terms of quality. You really feel that James have entered the realms of serious credibility here.
Born Of Frustration has a sort of U2 meets Bruce Springsteen howling vocal intro before we are introduced to the horns for the first time and the music breaks out into a big "la-la-la" stadium rock, Simple Minds-esque refrain. Tim Booth's vocals have, all of a sudden, become huge, rousing affairs. One of the album's most impressive tracks is Ring The Bells, which is full of catchy riffs, rolling drums and killer hooks on both the verses and chorus. It is one of the few James tracks to come close to matching the anthemic vibe of Sit Down, their one truly massive tune. I have to say it is pretty magnificent throughout, ending with some great guitar and drums interplay.
Sound starts with a very U2-esque feel and indeed, as it continues, is so like U2 as to be a bit embarrassing. Never mind, it is a great track, full of atmosphere and there is something sharper and clearer about James's sound compared to the industrial murk of U2 at the time. Booth's vocal wailing gives him something of a unique sound too. Those drums around two minutes in are so Larry Mullen, though, aren't they?
Bring A Gun is a wonderful serving of rocking new wave meets Brit Pop fare that doesn't let up from the first second. It is almost Rolling Stones-like in certain aspects - the riffs, the beat, the lyrics. Excellent stuff. Great rat-a-tat drums too and some madcap trumpet near the end. Mother is another track packed full of atmosphere, this time on its slower, more sombre tones. The brass is understated in the background, as is some subtle electric violin. The guitar is impressive too - this is mature, well-crafted music.
Don't Wait That Long is a solemn U2-influenced number, with a Bono-style vocal and some beautiful trumpet breaks. This is up there with anything U2 were putting out at the time, for sure. Listen to that Edge-fashion guitar and the brooding drumbeat, it is almost out U2-ing U2. Live A Love Of Life has some superb, vibrant trumpet breaks and pounding, Madchester-influenced drum beat and vocal. It is one of those dance rock type tracks that were everywhere in 1989-1993. Once again, there are a lot of Simple Minds echoes swirling around here. I'm sorry to keep going on about U2 but just listen to the brooding insistence of Next Lover - it makes it virtually impossible. I will balance that, though, by adding that the guitar sound is very Velvet Underground.
Heavens is lovely, poppy, vaguely Smiths-like number, with a hauntingly infectious vocal. Protect Me is a slow burning, sombre-ish ballad enhanced by some very Beatles trumpet. The album ends on a high with Seven - guess what? A U2-style rocker. Again, though, the trumpet gives it something special of its own. That, and the vocals, takes you higher.
Good album. One that needs more retrospective kudos.
Laid (1993)/Wah Wah (1994)
Out To Get You/Sometimes/Dream Thrum/One Of The Three/Say Something/Five-O/P. S./Everybody Knows/Knuckle Too Far/Low Low Low/Laid/Lullaby/Skindiving
This was the first album on which James employed the services of producer Brian Eno and it means the quiet U2 influence is even greater than it had been, in many ways this sounds more like a Daniel Lanois album than an Eno one (he also produced U2, of course). It was the group's most mature, understated piece of work to date, eschewing much of the Brit Pop/folky singalong material in favour of more sombre, reflective material. The sounds of rumbling bass and insistent drums are all over the album in a very Joshua Tree/Achtung Baby fashion, but Tim Booth's vocals lack Bono's rabble-rousing tones and it remains a more subtle, calm offering.
As this was now the age of CD, the album, at fifty-five minutes, is probably ten minutes too long, particularly taking the comparative homogenous nature of the sound into account.
Out To Get You is a brooding, low-key opener to the album, sort of Lou Reed meets U2 on a track that builds up in a style reminiscent of Public Image's Rise. Sometimes sees a return to more recognisable stadium singalong tones, as the acoustic guitars strum frenetically and Tim Booth's vocal is very Waterboys with vague hints of Deacon Blue in the melody and in the occasional phraseology - the "I swear I can hear the sea ..." line. As with many James songs, it ends on a huge built-up crescendo of sound. For some reason, parts of the understated, thoughtful but oddly-titled Dream Thrum put me in mind of Paul Simon but that certainly would not be something many others would hear, I'm sure.
The afore-mentioned Daniel Lanois sound is very much there on the gentle but subtly bassy One Of The Three. Apparently Eno didn't like the song so the band recorded it while he had a day off. Say Something has a lovely, quietly infectious beat/keyboard and bass backing and yet another fine vocal from a most underrated singer. Those drums are very Larry Mullen-esque and that is not the first time I have said that in James reviews. Mining the same quietly pensive sound is Five-O. Some impressive guitar sounds abound on here. Once more, the song builds up after three of its five minutes. Guess what? P. S. (which really should be titled Walking On Fire) ploughs the same furrow. Now it is a nice, fertile furrow but it doesn't offer much in terms of being able to offer different comment from song to song.
Everybody Knows is a plaintive, sad number with some Talking Heads-style The Overload keyboards swirling around. The deep but quiet bass of Knuckle Too Far actually reminds me of some of Bruce Springsteen's quieter, late eighties/early nineties material, such as Goin' Cali or Gave It A Name.
A bit of a welcome upping of the tempo arrives with the rousing Low Low Low and the infectious, high-pitched wails and rhythms of Laid. The latter is one of the album's only really genuine early nineties Brit Pop festival crowd-pleasers. This was only a brief energetic break, however, as Lullaby proves on its stark, moving melody. I'm not criticising it, though, it is actually a fine Lou Reed-esque ballad and possibly the album's finest track, despite not being its most obviously appealing. The later-era Springsteen feel is also there again on the haunting, beguiling and enigmatic Skindiving. Its extended and intoxicatingly subtle use of wah-wah guitars at the end give a pointer to the album of outtakes and instrumentals from this era which shared that type of guitar's title. James were no longer just a Brit Pop band, they were one that issued intriguing secondary albums full of experimentation.
The Wah-Wah album has an interesting mix of material, including the powerful merging of dance grooves with rock riffage of Jam J, an appealing more mainstream number in Pressure's On and another dance groove in Frequency Dip, using the sort of programmed drum sounds David Bowie would utilise of his Earthling album a few years later. This album showed that under their folky Brit Pop veneer they were secret Madchester dance rock aficionados. Burn The Cat experiments in with that very U2-esque rumbling bass line and some vocal sound effects and samples. It is a track that goes on far too long in a Revolution 9 sort of way, but its early bass line is a great one, as are some of later stabbing guitar interjections and insistent Kraftwerk vibes. Gospel Oak is an upbeat, vaguely post punky rocker and Maria and Building A Fire are good "proper" songs too, while Say Say Something has some delicious electric violin over its sumptuous bass.
Basically, though, the album is not a listenable one, it is one of interesting studio indulgence to be dipped into once in a while for ten minutes or so, no more.
Back to Laid, this was definitely a most impressive album, although it is one that begs multiple listens to properly get into it. It is certainly "credible". Incidentally from being pretty much faceless on album covers before this, at least one member of the band is wearing a dress on this one's cover, plus some strange attire for the rest of them, maybe making a point that they are now to be seen as "quirky". I'm sure it was a deliberate move on their part.