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Ultra: B-sides - James
Member Name: Steve McNamee
Ultra: B-sides - James
Date: 05/03/03, updated on 05/03/03 (87 review reads)
Advantages: The Lake, see review
Disadvantages: see review
As only die-hard James fans will probably be reading this anyway, I won?t give a potted history of the band. Other reviews within this section are available for that purpose. So straight onto the album.
Bearing in mind there are 18 songs here spread over James? career with Mercury Records, let me just clear one or two things up. Although I am a huge James fan, Gone Too Far, the album?s opener, is turgid. Awful. Honest Pleasure that follows is also truly spectacularly bad sub-Oasis drivel.
And then, as if acting as some spectacularly shining beacon of hope, comes the excellent Sunday Morning. A live favourite on the Come Home tour (check out the live version of it on the hard-to-come-by Come Home live video), it is everything that embodies James. As the xylophone starts, it sums up everything about your regular, erm, Sunday morning! Originally a Velvet Underground song I think (it was written by Lou Reed and John Cale anyway), James take the song and make it their very own. That said, in the monologue at the end you can almost hear the shadow of Reed?s voice in Booth?s. Beautiful.
Next up is the enjoyable China Girl. Another cover version (only one of two on the album) originally released by Iggy Pop and co-written with David Bowie, this version is a live version from a Radio 1 studio set (incidentally Greenpeace from the same session is astounding as well if you can find it on the Tomorrow single release I think). And although the music at the beginning is somewhat similar in sound to Oasis, Booth?s voice rises a
bove it all and just about pulls it off. And as with Sunday Morning, the song is perfectly delivered by Booth with customary aplomb. Even an uncharacteristically great rock guitar solo in the middle just makes it.
Now we?ve really hit top gear. Still Alive is pure James. Just Booth and a slide guitar make the song heartachingly impressive. Each verse comprises rhyming couplets that are at once simplistic, but full of dark humour ? ?Doctor told me I?ve a terminal disease, the cat?s run off and the dog?s got fleas, I?m still alive?? Listened to in various moods, the song can be equally depressing and uplifting in the ?someone is always worse off than you? sense. The wonderful piano towards the end of the song also captures the mood perfectly. Booth?s voice conveys the emptiness of the lyrics whilst at once delivering them with a rueful smile.
The album?s highlight, and arguably one of James? finest ever songs, let alone bsides, is next. The Lake is perfect. Pure and simple. The whole reason I love James in one record. Criminally left as a bside, released with Sometimes I think, the echoing guitars and wonderfully subtle brush drumming put together with Booth?s perfect delivery make this worth buying the album for all on its own. Words cannot do this song justice. In fact, it?s worth looking at how productive the band were at this point in their career that they could put this out as a bside. Given that their latter albums (Millionaires especially in my opinion) had a good deal of fillers, I think they would have killed to come up with the inspiration for another ?Lake?. As the song closes, Booth singing ?shine? repeatedly as if his life depended on it, you wonder if it can get any better than this.
Well, not a bad follow up. I Defeat is a song which just missed the cut on Millionaires (how? I mean, which would you rather have? This or Gaudi for crying out loud?!). Recorded with occasional collaborator Sinead O?Connor (not
a big fan myself usually), it is a pleasant enough song. O?Connor in particular performs wonders, and the interesting harmony between her and Booth is fascinating, working very well. Often sounding similar to a sea shanty in parts but not quite that bad (!), the song works well.
The term bside was written for Goalie?s Ball. Interesting verses which tell a fascinating story are spoiled by a chorus which makes no sense whatsoever and just sounds cobbled together because they thought they had to have a chorus somewhere ? ?Goalie?s ball, goalie?s ball, goalie?s got the ball, goalless draw, goalless draw, goalie?s got the ball?. Eh? A wonderful opportunity for a good song wasted. There?s not that much to it musically, but it?s enough I suppose.
Chunny Pops (originally Chunny Chops on the original release) is the nickname of one of the band. I know I sound scattered, but I can?t remember which one. Hard day?s work and all that! If I remember, I?ll edit this bit out! Anyway. The song itself is standard fare. Over a driving slightly disco-ish beat, Booth chants away about random ideas. Much of James material comes out of long jams which end up with a seed of an idea according to the band. Well, this sounds like a jam which they couldn?t be bothered finishing off. It is a measure of James? career at the time that with the band in turmoil following the departure of long-serving lead guitarist Larry Gott the bsides got worse and worse, especially around the time of Whiplash, when a single release came on a 3CD format (a record company decision to milk the fans apparently). One CD would be made up of remixes, one of old rare material, and one of new stuff. To be kind to the band, it sounds as though they really were scrabbling around for new material at the time as new guitarist Adrian Oxaal was bedded in.
Tonight sounds similar to late-80s/early-90s American pop. In other words, a bit crap. No real message, no real work on the mus
ic. Musically, it?s the younger, weaker brother of Seven (the song), all vast soundscapes and slick studio production. Not really worth bothering with to be honest.
Dreaming Up Tomorrow was a cracking wee tune at the time of its release in 1990. Typical of most James material at the time, musically it?s quite basic, but is rescued by some sterling work on the drums and violins and by Booth?s whimsical lyrics and delivery. Not bad, but in my opinion, it hasn?t aged particularly well.
The speedy workout of William Burroughs follows. All crashing drums and hyper bass line the song is enjoyable enough, but once again, is quite obviously nothing more than a bside.
Assassin follows. A short 2-minute tune, it?s pleasant and extremely catchy after a couple of listens, much like many of James? singles which have served them well in the distant past, if not quite as much towards the end chart-wise. Not quite good enough to be a single in its own right, but very enjoyable.
Stolen Horse is perhaps one of the more bizarre efforts on the album. Starting off with something you might hear on a demonstration part of a synthesiser, it doesn?t bold well. But Booth?s delicate lyric (triumphing over some slightly dodgy attempts at harmony from the rest of the band) makes the song surprisingly appealing. As with Goalie?s Ball though, some interesting choruses and musical direction are spoiled by a frankly ridiculous chorus that just sounds tacked on somehow and doesn?t fit in with the rest of the song, not to mention some more terrible harmony work. It?s a shame, because with a half-decent chorus, it could very well lay claim to being a single by itself. A wasted opportunity once again.
Undertaker follows, an acoustic effort. The beginning of the song makes you wonder if Leonard Cohen is about to pop up from somewhere and start burning virgins and taking strange women down (to the river!). Undertaker is a bit dull and difficult t
o listen to. The message of the lyrics, if you can try and concentrate hard enough is actually quite interesting, but not that interesting for me to write about and you to read. Indeed, about halfway through the song explodes into life with some mad drumming and guitars, but really shouldn?t have bothered. One of the weaker efforts on the album.
A fascinating, experimental, largely instrumental effort, Egoiste is atmospheric and at once beautiful, but also brooding, hinting at some dark threat, as the guitars crash ominously in the background. Very interesting and well worth checking out, especially if some of the more ambient noodlings on Wah Wah appealed to you.
The wonderfully-titled Van Gogh?s Dog follows. One of the better efforts from the Whiplash bsides era, VGD opens with an organ and some ambient whistles in the background, and steadily builds up and up without ever getting too high energy. Booth?s infamously astounding falsetto is also apparent, adding a great atmosphere to the track. Good enough in standard to have made it onto a James album, it would appear that the only reason it didn?t was because it wouldn?t really fit in alongside even the wide range of pieces that often make up James records.
The album closes with Where You Gonna Run?, a song that opens with the noise of a road and birds tweeting until a gentle bassline ushers in a slightly bizarre ambient effort that never really goes anywhere or does anything. Much of the bassline sounds lifted from a Mogwai record actually, but that?s about the only thing of note on the track.
The packaging of the album is very basic, Mercury obviously wanting to keep down overheads. I would have liked a little more information, such as what single each bside came from, etc. However, it has been a long-held belief among James fans that Mercury?s sheer ineptitude and shoddy attitude towards the band hindered them greatly. Indeed, it is a widely-held belief that the Be
st Of album which relaunched the band?s career was a last-ditch attempt by Mercury to make money out of the band somehow. The success of the album surprised the band and took them back a bit, but that?s nothing compared to Mercury, who acted as though they were completely shocked. Definitely not a planned method of raising the band?s profile, it is my belief that had the album flopped, James would have been quickly axed by Mercury, such was its lack of belief in the band.
But overall, the album is interesting. It isn?t what I?d regard as a must-buy purchase, except maybe for the die-hards who arguably might have half the stuff on the album in their collection if they?re anything like some of the fanatics that have followed James about for the past 15-20 years are like. There is some utter rubbish on the album at points, some songs that have the germ of a good song but don?t quite seem finished off, and two or three classics. Personally, I would buy the album just for The Lake, which is right up there competing for the title of my favourite James song ever. If you only like the Best Of though, I wouldn?t bother to be honest.