With a career that includes ten studio albums, 20 UK Top 40 singles and 12 million albums sold, The Night Before
is the first of two mini albums from James, containing all brand new studio material from the seven piece band. Produced by Lee "Muddy" Baker (who produced Hey Ma
as well as lead singer Tim Booth’s solo album Bone
in 2004). The Night Before
was conceived uniquely: the band set up an ftp site to which they all contributed, downloading and updating each other’s efforts at various intervals whilst Baker knocked things into shape. This virtual recording process (which eventually led to recording sessions in Brighton and Oswestry) was presumably inspired by the band’s history of working with Brian Eno. The stand out track from the mini album is "Crazy" was inspired from Booth’s hospitalisation for liver disease; throughout recovery Booth was convinced that his physical frailty (which often produced hallucinations) meant that he was "crazy".
James gained notoriety in the early 90s with student-pleasing sing-alongs such as the ubiquitous Sit Down, and earned a reputation for selling more t-shirts than records. Given that merchandising makes more money than records these days, they could have gone on to make a fortune from clothing lines. Instead they enlisted the help of Brian Eno, who accentuated the space and atmosphere at the heart of their songs with great success, particularly on Laid (1993) and Whiplash (1997). After the fanfare of a farewell tour in 2001, they reformed for the release of Hey Ma in 2008. James is an oft-misunderstood band and The Night Before, a mini-album of seven songs, won’t clear up any confusion. It’s deliberately curtailed, with a partner record (The Morning After) to follow later in the year, but such a short run time finds the constituent pieces failing to fully gel. The opener, It’s Hot, nods to Joy Division, albeit with a woozy charm in keeping with its title – it’s a pleasant grower. Crazy, the lead single, provides passable radio fodder and reflects James’ tendency to sound like U2, although on its “c-c-cr-crazy” chorus vocalist Tim Booth sounds like a man in pursuit of the correct spelling. His barroom philosophy is never more pronounced than when dealing with politics, such as Dr Hellier’s excruciating Iraq War history lesson. In their best moments James can echo the dream-pop of Cocteau Twins, a side presented here with the touching slide guitar of the chorus-less Porcupine. It’s a shame this subtlety is soon pushed aside by a tedious blokeishness missing from their previous records, such as on Shine’s mid-tempo tirade against the rich. The record is rescued somewhat by the reflective groove of Ten Below, which recalls days of wearing headphones in bed listening to John Peel’s show. But it’s not enough. Strangely for a band once keen to pursue experimentation, the reconvened James sounds too comfortable. They are one of the country’s best live bands, which is probably where these songs will find the life that is often lacking here. They have created luminescent music in the past, and are likely to do so again, but many will find it hard to connect with this collection. --Tom Hocknell
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