James, the blokes responsible for one of my all-time favorite albums, are back, seven years after a split that nearly consigned the band to being all-but-forgotten. Big in England, the band had the misfortune to chart just one song in the U.S., which in the attention deficit of this country's pop culture means you're a one-hit wonder, regardless of the quality of the rest of your music.
Of course, "Laid" was one hell of a single and definitely earned the band plenty of curious American fans (yours truly), but for some reason the American music public in general just stopped there. And subsequently missed out on a damn good thing.
The Laid album was a staple of mine from nearly the time it came out in 1993 clear through most of my college years, a span of eight or so years. Few albums have ever come along with such fortunate timing to really mean something in my life, and that brooding masterpiece of alternative rock was one of my cornerstones. I always loved the lyrics especially - James was a band that was daring me to figure myself out, with words and clues throw out along the way and a certain yearning sound that always felt like a part of the search in itself.
I don't think James ever quite fit with the Manchester scene they came up in - they never were as dance-oriented or as punk-inspired as the bigger Manchester bands (hence no Brooklyn-based rip-off/revival movement these days). Brian Eno produced Laid and while the record certainly carries his touch, it's neither as experimental as his own work or as polished as his U2 production. What he did was let James be James, and the band always relied on an intricate instrumental base, letting acoustic guitars and well-placed horns have their place in alt.rock.
News of the band's return a few months back caught me by surprise and frankly had me listening to Laid straight through for the first time in years. And it holds up, my friends, it really does.
Hey Ma has already been released in the UK, but the U.S. release date isn't until September for some reason. Until then, check out the tunes on the band's MySpace, or the KCRW set they performed last week:
It's clear from this preview that James has emerged on this side of the seven-year hiatus with the band's signature sound intact, a melodic and atmospheric swirl, anchored by Tim Booth's soaring and passionate vocals. The new songs are fantastic, just the right mood for this 2008 that we're living.
(An aside just gleaned from wikipedia: Booth played Victor Zsasz in Batman Begins and is apparently returning in The Dark Knight. I had no idea.)
James - Hey Ma (live KCRW)
Get the whole set (six songs, plus interviews) as a zip file.