James had disappeared.
In the mid 1990’s, amid a series of tax bills, injuries and in-fighting, the Mancunian band lost long-standing guitarist Larry Gott, their manager and, at times, lead singer and lyricist, Tim Booth. During this time of upheaval and uncertainty, James, in rag-tag form, had still managed to release three albums of tight, conventional pop songs, concluding with 2001’s Pleased to Meet You. The problem, however, was that they had abandoned their improvisational and spontaneous style of music-making and been unable to live up to the promise of 1993’s Laid. Out of touch and with no hit song, James promptly lost their record company and quietly faded away.
While band mates focused on family life or other forms of musical work, Booth, in addition to releasing solo efforts, would take a shine to acting, even appearing as an asylum inmate in the Batman Begins film. It was believed, by all participants, that James was over.
Now, five years on, the band has come home. Bringing together the musicians and the sounds that brought the group to acclaim in the early 90’s, James have returned with their strongest offering since that period in Hey Ma.
Back with his distinctive guitar sounds is Gott, as is Andy Diagram, trumpeter on early albums. Once again a seven-piece, the band decided to get back to what they had enjoyed, what had made them successful: improvisation, but now utilizing the practices learned from Brian Eno, who had worked with them on Laid. Lee Muddy Baker, who encouraged spontaneity, produced the new album. Attempting to keep an organized recording, the producer methodically assembled pieces of improvised rehearsal time together into finished songs and Hey Ma sees the successful amalgamation of two, distinctly different, artistic spheres. The aspect of “assembly” seems to be a metaphor for the reemergence of the band itself.
The first track, Bubbles, comes in with an echoed strumming of guitar, a rippling sound emanating from somewhere underwater. First played live when the band initially heard of the death of Factory Records founder, Tony Wilson, it builds with drum, bass and then piano until horns kick in triumphantly while Booth bellows “I’m alive.” This is the James that a generation grew up on: life, transcendent of this mortal coil.
The title track, Hey Ma, is next, a political piece about choices, consequences and post 9-11 American politics. “Hey ma,” hollers Booth, “the boys in the body bags coming home in pieces,” his voice, driven forward by drums and horn again. James was always known as a live band first and foremost and this song echoes the biggest stadium rock songs they’ve ever produced. Despite its heavy lyrics, its uplifting sound is sure to prove a crowd favourite. Waterfall, inspired by a swim at the Snoqualmie Falls where the television show Twin Peaks was filmed, is another life-affirming song and easy to sing along to. It speaks to the hustle-bustle of daily life and conjures imagery of the natural earth. Indeed, the entire album is made up of these kinds of compositions.
The last track on the album, I Wanna Go Home, is a slow but beautiful burn, reminiscent of the earliest of James folk-styled offerings. It plays a great bookend to the album, building with drum and violin while the whispers of “Sex is overrated, I need to dance” linger as the song develops into a cacophony of sounds and screams – a harkening of the band’s return to form. James was always at their best in this realm – where they walk the fine line of beautiful music gone awry yet never quite treading over that precipice.
The band had once solidified their reputation by playing live, improvising, forming their songs fresh for a listening audience. Unabashed of mistakes, they would often take their fans to heights that their records, as good as they may have been, were not able to achieve. The band lost touch with that connection through their later albums but have returned to that place once again with Hey Ma. This is an album whose songs were meant to be heard live – just as they had been created.
James, in essence, have come home.
If you’re in the area and if you can get tickets to the sold out concert, James play Toronto on Tuesday, September 23 at the Phoenix Concert Theatre.