"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
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
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.