The name James must mean “flux” in Manchester parlance: the English group has been changing and evolving along an unpredictable course ever since making its debut as a folky new wave quartet in 1983. Surviving several stages of the city’s pace-setting musical development, James has followed a unique agenda, expanding its ambitions wider and deeper- if not always for the better — each discontinuous album.
Village Fire collects five tracks from the band’s first two singles, presenting a diverse range: from folk enhanced with numerous layers of acoustic guitar to revved-up funk and keen-edged punk.
Produced by Lenny Kaye, Stutter is rustic folk- rock, energetic and busy, handsomely neo-traditional in its musical spirit and pompously silly in Tim Booth’s lyrics and vocals, which lurch around poorly arranged songs. A few promising tunes — the accelerating “Skullduggery,” “So Many Ways,” “Why So Close” (a remix from Village Fire) and “Just Hip” — don’t put the album over.
Fortunately, Strip-mine sets things to right. Crystalline production by Hugh Jones makes the most of the band’s alluring and intelligent folk-pop. (“Charlie Dance,” “Ya Ho” and “Stripmining” are highlights.) Gavan Whelan’s uncommon around-the-beat drumming and Booth’s imaginative vocals outline the songs, leaving guitarist Larry Gott (doubling on keyboards and flute) to delicately paint them in with bright colors. Where James dragged its heels on Stutter, the frequently delightful Strip- mine kicks them up in the air, as if an artistic weight had been lifted.
Booth’s onstage emergence as a theatrical Morrissey wannabe ruins the live One Man Clapping, recorded in Bath at the end of 1988. While the other three, augmented by a keyboard player, rough up the songs (only two come from Strip-Mine; three are from Stutter) with cavalier enthusiasm, Booth puts on an insufferable demonstration that overwhelms the music’s subtlety and underscores the pretentiousness of his lyrics. (The CD and cassette add a track.)
Marking a switch in Manchester style loyalties from the Smiths to house-pop, Gold Mother introduced the new James, a grandiosely dramatic seven-piece (Whelan is gone; the lineup now includes a trumpeter and violinist) playing long, instrumentally overloaded poetic rock epics. (Comparisons to the early Waterboys are not unwarranted.) Booth’s lyrics have never been this self-important — preaching revolution in “Government Walls,” damning religion in “God Only Knows,” slagging off a woman in “How Was It for You” and enigmatically celebrating childbirth in the title track — but he winds up sounding foolish rather than fiery. Inspiral Carpets provide backing vocals on “Gold Mother.”
That album made the group stars in England, but America still wasn’t buying, so the band’s new US label tried it again, deleting “Crescendo” and “Hang On” in favor of “Sit Down” and “Lose Control” and reissuing it as James. Still no takers.
Seven refashions the septet into an English Simple Minds, spreading its wings across a grand polyrhythmic tableau in which everyone plays at once and nobody gets hurt. Against a surging model of dynamic textures in tautly controlled arrangements that employ the members’ skills to the fullest, Booth keeps his singing dramatic but eloquent — more Liam Neeson than Charlton Heston, which serves to sharpen the vibrant music’s focus. Whether topical (“Bring a Gun”) or romantic (“Don’t Wait That Long”), the lyrics are more considered and set lower in the mix, but the music’s invigorating force is what makes the buoyant Seven James’ first fully satisfying album.
Trumpeter Andy Diagram got off the bus as the other six teamed with Brian Eno (thereby encouraging the U2 Joshua Tree component of James’ thinking) to make not one but two albums: the subdued, largely acoustic and folk- inflected Laid and Wah Wah, a compilation of improvisational sketches for it. Putting unprecedented weight on Booth’s vocals (which rise to the occasion, despite habitual repetition of tag lines in simple songs which seem under-written as a result), Laid tucks the band into quiet instrumental beds, fluffed up with space and air rather than demonstrative personality. The only thing that rouses the band to all-together-now enthusiasm is the tasteless sex talk of the title track. Although pretty in its fussed-over gentility and alluring in small doses, the enervated Laid is a stylish bore.
In a typically Enoesque conceptual experiment which could imaginably have been planned for his U2 charges, Wah Wah was processed, edited and pieced together (in tribute to Eno’s days in Roxy Music, the credits have it “remade-remodeled”) from days of studio improvisation (they don’t call it jamming anymore). Engineer/mixer Markus Dravs shaped the results into 23 distinct chunks diverse enough to float like audio wallpaper one minute, hit a heavy dance groove the next, trail off into world music adventures and then come back with a nearly formed song. A lively piece of ambience unique in the process of its creation, Wah Wah is credibly listenable and, in its way, more intriguing than the album of which it’s the byproduct.