First James were uncouth, experimental post-punk rockers, then they became shoegazers...then Brit-pop stars, and that's when I first heard them. Wow, did I ever hear them.
In 1993 was spending a week in Toronto, staying with a good friend in her enormous apartment. My friend -- always on the college radio cutting edge -- had just discovered the single "Laid" by James, and every morning she would play it...over and over again...on repeat...jumping around and around on the other side of the wall.
To this day "Laid" is the only James song that really broke into the consciousness of anybody in this area. It's an exceptional song, but it wasn't until a few years ago -- thanks to a greatest hits compilation -- that I realized that James was a FACTORY for exceptional songs, and that -- in context -- "Laid" wasn't the dumb college sex-rocker that it appeared to be.
Here's the video for "Sometimes," a song unlike anything thing else that pop radio was playing then (or now), a strangely chugging song without bridges or transitions, just one long story that culminates in amazing James harmony (this is an edited version of the song, missing a verse and rushing headlong toward the climax...but it's still greatness).
So you've got these Manchester pop darlings being nursed along by Brian Eno, playing legendary live shows and putting out hit after hit...but eventually lead singer/songwriter Tim Booth decided he'd had enough. One of the final concerts was filmed and put on DVD, showing -- among other things -- the tightness of the band, and the oddness of football hooligans shouting along with sensitive lyrics about dolphins.
Case in point, here's the title track from that DVD, "Getting Away With It," a song from one of their two final albums (which their record company never bothered releasing in North America). I love the bassline, I love the plaintive quality, I'm less of a fan of Booth's dancing, however.
Yup, they split up. Booth released a solo album (and a lacklustre collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti) before everybody decided to get back together again. Their new album is due for release next month. James is alive!
Must-have albums: to be honest their albums tend to have a high number of throw-away songs on them, but the sublime moments make each one worthwhile. I like "Whiplash" myself. Albums to avoid: I hear their first two albums were pretty shoddy, but I've never been able to dig them up. For fans only: "Wah-Wah," a collection of improvisational pieces recorded during the "Laid" sessions, and the perfect way to kill a band's marketing momentum. Silly, James.