James' Latest Is Enough To Give You Whiplash

"They'll never make it big. They're too good."

That's my friend Aryeh talking about Charming Hostess, a San Francisco

band he's fond of. The more I think about it, the more I believe this

statement is true of many bands who are simply too wonderful, too

heartfelt, too ingenious to appeal to the masses. Perhaps this explains

why James has never been a major success, despite 12 years in the music

business, seven excellent albums and collaborations with folks like Brian

Eno, Flood and Angelo Badalamenti.

Granted, James' last album, 1993's Laid sold better in the U.S.

than any of their previous albums. But even in its home country, England,

the band's career has been overshadowed by British-Isle groups with better

marketing schemes, like the Smiths, Duran Duran and U2. Perhaps it's

fortunate that James' latest, Whiplash, was released just before

U2's Pop hit the stores. Even so, few have seemed to notice.

The four-year gap between Laid and Whiplash was filled with

side ventures and upheavals, both internal and external, which have

colored their new record. Wah Wah, a compilation of jams, nascent

songs and outtakes from the Laid recording sessions, appeared in

1994. Vocalist, Tim Booth, worked with Badalamenti in 1995 to make the

dark, expansive Booth and the Bad Angel record. Bands like Oasis,

Blur and Bush brought the English music scene to the world's attention for

the first time in ten years. And during the writing of what would become

Whiplash, guitarist Larry Gott, one of James' founding members,

announced he no longer wanted to be part of the band.

All of these influences are woven through Whiplash, a record which

combines James constants--the folksy undertones, the pop-driven feel,

Booth's gorgeous, clear vocals--with some new elements like harder-edged

dance rhythms and thumping rock arrangements. Though this record lacks

the exhilarating abandon of 1992's Seven or the melancholy

ruminations of Laid, it's a solid, expansive and intelligent album

which elegantly combines '80s idealism with '90s edginess.

Whiplash opens with "Tomorrow," a sweeping, jangly-guitared number

lifted from the Wah Wah sessions and given new life with an

understated string arrangement led by James violinist Saul Davies. It's

an uplifting beginning to this mostly-upbeat record, letting listeners

know that James sees a bright future for itself: "Gotta keep faith that

your path will change/Gotta keep faith that your luck will change

tomorrow."

James' good cheer returns throughout the record, decorated with

anthem-like piano and sweeping slide guitar in the first single, "She's A

Star;" emerging from cold, throbbing rhythms and the searching chorus of

"Play Dead;" bouncing along with Jim Glennie's bass line and chant-along

backing vocals on "Avalanche" and swinging with the drag-queen-inspired

lyrics of "Homeboy." Booth's vocals soar from deep, clean tones to a

breathtaking falsetto, whirling through layers of chiming guitars supplied

by Adrian Oxaal.

In other moments, James delves into darker themes, like the

Laid-inflected gloom of "Waltzing Along", which impossibly weaves a

three-beat waltz into a four-time swing. Oxaal's guitar echoes through

like the voice of a mourning woman as Booth sings of loneliness and

release in lines like "These wounds are all self-imposed... All roads lead

on to death row/Who knows what's after?" But the chorus lends a proud, if

cutting, sense of hope: "May your mind be wide open/May your heart beat

strong/May your mind's will be broken/By this heartfelt song."

On "Greenpeace," the band composes a movement in which three distinct

voices represent the debate over environmental protection. In the first,

an echoed music box tinkles sadly in the distance as Booth's disaffected

voice sings from the apathetic masses: "I don't like the world I see/ So

I'll avert my gaze to the TV." In the second, low ringing bell tones

accompany Booth's guttural portrayal of big business: "Gonna rape this

world with my straight lines/Gonna straighten her out/Because nature is

just history."

And in the third, Booth's falsetto speaks for Mother Earth herself as a

tripped-up rhythm and mechanical drone shudder behind "her." It's a

powerful and important reflection on the modern world--especially

considering how many of James' contemporaries have abandoned their

political stances in favor of the latest fashion craze.

Whiplash is perhaps best defined by its extremes. "Go to the Bank"

begins with a sinuous gypsy violin line and, without warning, launches

into an inescapable dance rhythm; every other instrument is stripped to

its essence as Booth rhapsodizes about the wonders of consumerism and

excess, his delivery dripping with sarcasm. Again on "Blue Pastures," the

musicianship is minimal; Glennie's bass meanders under Booth's gentle

croon, creating a kind of lullaby. The guitar shivers in as Booth sings

"I'm walking to the sound of distant bells." At moments the lyric

considers bad times, even suicide. But as the drums make a brief

appearance, the tone changes to one of tentative hope that carries to the

closing line, "I fall into a sleep." Then the guitars fade out, leaving a

sweet, gentle silence in their wake.

Whether their arrangements be elaborate or humble, James has created yet

another gratifying record which compromises nothing in the way of artistic

license. While its style might sometimes be awkward, overly ambitious or

unabashedly gorgeous, this band makes no apologies for itself. James may

never make it big, but at least they're achieving their own dream, never

settling for a style which might do little more than satisfy the masses.