When one thinks of the music from Manchester, England, groups like The Smiths, New Order, Stone Roses and Oasis come to mind. James is one band that for years has been underappreciated and at time relatively unnoticed when it came from their birthplace of Manchester. James did acquire some notoriety in the early nineties with their 120 Minutes and college radio single “Born of Frustration.” It wasn’t until 1993’s Laid that got them respect worldwide, thanks to the production of one Brian Eno. Laid is one of the most underrated albums and one of my top favorites of the ’90s.
It was a shame that James didn’t reach superstardom, because they were well on the way on the strength of the magnificent songs they created on Laid. From start to finish, it’s their one masterpiece, imperfect as it was brought to life in a creative environment that flourished under James’ secret weapon harnessing their revolutionary improvisatory nature on wax. Eno was a master of capturing their creative sparks on tape which one can witness on “Blue Pastures” from the misunderstood letdown, the follow-up to Laid, Whiplash. On that one song, Tim Booth’s multidimensional whispered vocal uttered over a solitary bassline and distant atmosphere guitar echoes is brilliance in full effect.
Although James went on to find some commercial success on the other side of the pond with Millionaires and Pleased to Meet You, ever since the collapse of Whiplash they were unable to recreate the magic felt by millions on the classic Laid. After a much-publicized farewell show in their hometown of Manchester, James split and went their separate ways. After frontman Tim Booth released a pair of his own recordings (one with composer Angelo Badalmenti), in January 2007 it was announced that he would be rejoining James in a series of shows. The fruits of those concerts brought James back to life. The original line-up reconvened at Warzy Chateau in France where the band proceeded to build its own recording studio. This studio consisted on personal studios where each member could interact with producer Baker. This studio helped James go back to the spontaneous nature of recording which spawned the successful sessions of Laid.
Hey Ma was the result and what an album it is. “Bubbles” opens the record, their best lead song since “Out to Get You” first seduced us on Laid. Booth still has that lush vocal but this time “Bubbles” builds and by the climax as Booth exclaims “I’m alive,” the band explodes in horns, guitars and drums announcing the glorious return of these Manchester greats.
If there was one word to describe Hey Ma it has to be `energetic.’ Hey Ma oozes with vigor and passion never before birthed by James. You can hear the sense in resurgence of a band that was written off by American record labels long ago. The title track is the perfect example. As he sings, “Hey Ma/ the boys in body bags coming home in pieces,” Booth unleashes a monumental lyrical moment in his career. He brings to life the images that the Pentagon refuses us to see. “Hey Ma” is not just an anti-war protest but a call to arms anthem and a coming together for all families affected by this unjust war.
The beat rolls on with “Waterfall.” Inspired by an exhilarating swim under the Snoqualmie Falls, the same ones seen in the credits of Twin Peaks, Booth sings about being emotionally moved by nature’s intricate beauty, something to which I could relate for I first heard Hey Ma on my vacation to Europe.
It’s rare when you connect with an album, from the opening notes, that the music will take you to the place and bring up joyous memories in the place you first discovered it. To me, Hey Ma reminds me of that incredible vacation in Venice, Italy. The excitement of being in a wonderfully strange land was brought to life by the magic of this album. All I have to do is press play, close my eyes and I am there again.
“Oh My Heart” is Booth’s plea to the heartbroken to “adore life.” James comes alive in this electric number. The rhythms ascend thanks to Jim Glennie, Saul Davies, Mark Hunter, drummer Mark Hunter, and let’s not forget the signature riffs from guitarist Larry Gott. We cannot forget the outstanding contribution by James as whole. As you will hear on Hey Ma, this isn’t just Tim Booth’s band. James are a unit, united to create a worldly sound to be shared by all of those enter.
Hear Tim’s croon “Upside love, down side miss you, I’m here you are there” on “Upside,” this uplifting lament echoing the feeling of being apart from the one that you love. James reflects these emotional resonating images like words kissing your face, with this rare sense of delicate honesty. I enjoyed the ironic urgency of “Whiteboy,” the post-modern theme song for the game-lazy-boy generation. “I’m in awe of you/ we’ll survive,” Booth sings, continuing his musings of our disconnected society in the atmospheric grace that is “Of Monsters & Heroes, Men.” Hey Ma closes with Booth letting his voice ascend by repeating the lyric “I wanna go home” as he created as a first jammer, and the result is this creation, a ballad about a man dying of remorse in a bar.
From the ashes of the Eno-lit creative flame that seemed to have expired long ago, Hey Ma resurrects the improvisational spirit that is James. It may have taken them more than 15 years but James has finally soared to greatness equaling the magnificent foundation of Laid.