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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

James - The Best Of (1998)

The first time I saw James play live was at Glastonbury ’98. The weather was horrible, my clothes were damp and caked in mud, and it was amazing.

I’ve never really been interested in sports - I do Judo and I enjoy watching wrestling (the fake stuff with spandex and baby oil) - but I’ve always been indifferent to sports in general. When people ask me who I support in football, I never really know what to say; I usually end up muttering something about not really following football, or end up falling into the trap of nominating Wolverhampton Wanderers because it’s my home-town and I used to go to some games with an ex. However, there is no denying that it was because of football that the James show I saw at Glastonbury was something special.

It was World Cup 98, and before the show they’d aired England versus Columbia on the big screens of the main stage. England beat Columbia 2-0, and a sense of elation seemed to ripple through the crowd. As the match ended, Tim Booth came on stage and said something to the effect of ‘If England lost we were going to play B-sides and funeral marches’ and then went straight into ‘Sit Down’.

James were a band who had been on the periphery of my music collection: I had a few singles - ‘Sometimes’, ‘Laid’ and ‘Come Home’, but had never thought enough of them to invest in an album. This gig made me realised not only that I knew many more songs by the band than I had realised, but that so many of them were excellent.

A few weeks after returning home from Glastonbury, I found the two disc edition of James’ Best Of in a bargain bin in Woolworths for £3. The case had evidently been lost, so all I have today are the discs. This probably hasn’t helped me to give this collection the time it deserves because it is hidden on my shelves without a name poking out from the piles of discs.

James’ Best Of opens with ‘Come Home’, with its bright piano riffs taking their influence from house, it’s a song that captures the sound of the late-80s indie scene perfectly. I’ve heard ‘Sit Down’ far too many times. I remember when this song was released it was played everywhere. It is an excellent piece of music with a massive chorus and a message of love and inclusion. It is this track that took James to the mainstream and saw them part ways with their original label Rough Trade.

‘She’s a Star’ opens with the instantly recognisable slide guitar riff that just fills you with this feeling of positivity. I defy anyone not to be moved by Booth’s vocal performance in this song: there’s this relaxed sensibility that is tinged with a slight hint of aggression, and when he hits those high notes in the chorus, it just sounds amazing.

‘Laid’ is an excellent song. It’s a song about the fine line between intense passion and craziness that is difficult to find fault with: its intro is iconic, the occasional drum rolls create feelings of urgent intensity, and the song is catchy as hell. When I saw James play live, they ended their encore with this one – I can’t think of a better song to end a James set with.

‘Waltzing Along’ sounds quite cheesy. I think it is something to do with the guitar riff and the interplay between the main vocal and backing vocal during the chorus. ‘Say Something’ is spacious and subtle, with its tumbling drums and sparce guitar acting as the perfect counterpart to another excellent vocal performance. ‘Born of Frustration’ reminds me of something that Simple Minds might have done: its production is very dated but I can’t help but love Booth’s bizarre vocal whoops during the chorus.

‘Destiny Calling’ is absolutely horrible. The production is horrible, the lyrics are naff and the music sounds as though James had lost their way and tried to emulate bands like Longpigs or The Bluetones in order to try and stay relevant. This is one of those songs where I find myself scrambling, almost panicked, for the skip button.

‘Out to Get You’ slows things down with subtle country-tinged slide guitars and gentle vocals. This song has always struck me as being quite insincere. It’s as though the band sat down and ticked all the boxes in the ‘how to create emotive and nostalgic feelings with music’ handbook. There’s something about this song that doesn’t quite connect with me.

‘Runaground’ is another very good song. The guitars are crisp and the vocal performance is excellent. I love the way this song teases the big anthemic chorus, remaining restrained until the song’s final verse. ‘Lose Control’ is a decent enough song, but I can’t get past how bad the drum machine sound is in this one - it’s the same sound that seemed to be in all pop records in about 1991, which makes the song incredibly dated.

‘Sometimes’ is amazing. It sounds like hundreds of guitars strumming the same chord endlessly as a bass-line noodles around it. What makes the song unusual is that coupled with the single guitar chord is a vocal delivery that is spoken and rhythmic and only sung at particularly stirring moments. ‘Sometimes’ showcases some of Tim Booth’s finest lyrics, as he paints poetic and heartbreaking images: “There's four new colours in the rainbow / An old man's taking polaroids / But all he captures is endless rain, endless rain.” An incredible song.

‘How Was it For Ypu’ reminds me of the type of cheery indie-pop that the Wonderstuff produced, with its choppy guitar riffs, stop-start bass-lines and the metronomic cowbell that drives the rhythm. ‘Seven’ is a quite forgettable and does very little for me.

The album closes with the staggering ‘Hymn From A Village’ which in my opinion is James’ finest song. It’s piece of music that seems to crackle with restless energy. There’s a mistake in this song where the mandolin hits a bum-note; it was as if the song was recorded so perfectly that this didn’t matter – there was no way that they could have recaptured the perfect urgency of this song again.

The Best Of James is a very good compilation of hits. There are some weak songs on here, and a few that haven’t aged well, but this is more than made up for by some of the better songs on the album. James are a band that get unfairly overlooked in discussions about classic bands, but with songs like ‘Laid’, ‘Sit Down’ and ‘Hymn From A Village’ their legacy should not be in doubt.

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