Monday, January 27, 1997
Popular group’s forthcoming album ‘Whiplash’ delves into new
genres, soundsBy Kristin Fiore
Daily Bruin Senior Staff
James are one of the cruel ironies of the British music scene.
While they have enjoyed tremendous success on their home turf,
selling out venues large enough to require their own zip code, U.S.
success has eluded them time and again. This trend will likely
continue with the release of their new album, "Whiplash," even as
fellow Brits like Oasis and Bush take Uncle Sam to the bank.
At the risk of sounding selfish Â goody!! Some of us
stateside aren’t ready to share their intimate but overwhelming
club shows with 300 million folks. We won’t all fit when we rush
the stage for an impromptu arm-in-arm sing-along to the band’s
anthem, "Sit Down" (The Roxy, 1992 Â what an evening).
However, a college CD review couldn’t hurt Â it won’t make a
ripple in their sales, anyway.
Though any meanderings through the usual musical dictionary
Â melodic, poetic, infectious, atmospheric Â fall
pathetically short of describing James’ music (and most bands’,
unfortunately), that’s all there is to work with. But one fitting
word does come to mind Â transcendent. James have a spiritual
quality underneath their deceptively poppy, melodic guitars and
violin. Sometimes it’s in the depth of Tim Booth’s voice and
howling, wordless choruses; sometimes it’s in the production that
strips the song to its core, as in "Top of the World" ("James") or
"Out to Get You" ("Laid").
Unfortunately, James’ U.S. singles usually fail to stir that
magic Â "Laid" and "Say Something" were two of the weaker and
more uncharacteristic songs on the "Laid" album. Its best songs
were quieter, more intimate.
Their latest effort, however, is more richly produced and
upbeat, recalling their early ’90s music. "Whiplash" lives up to
its name in that it snaps you forward into the future of dance and
experimental music, then back again into the comfortable sound
James mastered on 1992’s "Seven." However, the album is not
disjointed or extreme enough to induce the shock that its title
Most songs are a definite step forward Â reaching out
sonically and vocally, delving into new genres and sounds emanating
from England Â but others are derivative of their earlier
works, as is the opening track, ironically titled "Tomorrow." While
those unfamiliar with "Ring the Bells" (from "Seven") are sure to
be enchanted with its ethereal but driven guitars and Booth’s
flawless falsetto, everyone else will find it all too familiar.
Maybe it’s a reminder of the more traditional sound James had
before "Laid’s" producer, the brilliant Brian Eno (all genuflect),
entered the picture.
The next songs, "Lost A Friend" and "Waltzing Along," follow in
a similar vein. But in an unusual twist, the middle of the album is
the strangest and strongest.
"Greenpeace" is the most intriguing and sensual song on the
album, which is saying quite a lot. It recalls the more
experimental nature of their improvisational album, "Wah Wah,"
flipping back and forth between a sci-fi lullaby and a whirling
bass line over dance drums, diving into and out of a
techno-inspired chaos. Booth mutters through impersonalized
distortion Â as he does on many tracks Â then reverts to
the cooing of his angelic falsetto. Both are equally suggestive and
"Go to the Bank" is also techno-inspired, but it’s more
straightforward, syncopated dance. Its chorus and drum rhythms are
hypnotizing and promise to lodge themselves firmly in your brain
for a few days, but you won’t mind. It’s got more attitude than the
average James tune, a direction the band seems to be moving in.
James change directions again with the weightless, spacey "Play
Dead." Its infectious, danceable drums keep it almost rooted to the
ground, but the keyboards and Booth’s soaring vocals keep it
floating. "Avalance" keeps this mood in its chorus, but the rawer
verses bring in the dissonant electric guitar that appears in their
louder songs. It is one of the better tracks and (nonetheless) may
see the light of day as a single.
The final two songs are sparse, intimate and slow like "Top of
the World" from "James." They consist only of Booth’s voice and a
few plucked guitars. Their titles reflect their more natural, laid-
back feel Â "Watering Hole" and "Blue Pastures."
The music’s depth and diversity is echoed in Booth’s lyrics,
which span his favorite subjects Â mood, sex, spirituality and
emotional exploitation. His love of self-exploration and meditation
are evident in his uncanny ability to communicate feelings of
desire, confusion, abuse and madness.
It seems the album comes full circle, beginning where the band
left off years ago, building up to an aggressive and modern edge,
then winding down with aimless, eerie, sonic landscapes. You can
hear elements of every stage of James’ development Â their
warmth and intimacy, harmony and love of silence, vocal experiments
and lyrical journeys. Grade: A-
Music: "Whiplash" by James will be released Feb. 25 on Mercury
(l.-r.) Mark Hunter, Saul Davies, Larry Gott, David
Baynton-Power, Tim Booth and Jim Glennie of the band James.