It's always been a mystery why James' back catalogue hasn't been afforded the same reverential treatment as so many of their peers, but Universal are putting this right with a series of expanded issues of their best-known albums, starting with a four-disc version of their critically acclaimed 1993 Laid album, accompanied by the improvised album Wah Wah, recorded in the same sessions but released a year later, a disc of mostly unreleased demos and jams and a fourth disc of b-sides, radio sessions and remixes.
We're working through the Super Deluxe edition, one disc per day. Today, we start with the album itself.
If you were to poll James' fanbase as to their favourite album, Laid would inevitably come out on top. Whilst it didn't reach the heights of its predecessor Seven in the charts nor did it contain a single as instantly recognisable as Sit Down which found its way on to Gold Mother after spending a month at number two in the charts, it's the one that seems to stir the emotions (particularly outside the UK, where this album broke them in the US and parts of continental Europe).
Produced by Brian Eno, the album feels like a counterbalance and a reaction to the fame and fortune that had come their way in the previous three years. Whilst it still managed to spurn the two singles Sometimes and Laid, two of their most loved songs, it takes a much more reflective approach than the more direct attack of the previous two albums. Rather than throw the kitchen sink at it, as it felt happened at points of Seven, the album gives the band space to breathe, partially down to the more natural relaxed environment that producer Brian Eno created for them to work in, which resulted in Wah Wah, a series of jams recorded at the same time.
Next up is Sometimes. Sub-titled Lester Piggott because of the repetitive guitar that canters through the song, it was the one track that convinced Eno that he had to work with James. The lyrics are full of vivid imagery of a boy stood out in a storm trying to channel the energy of it through himself as chaos reigns around him. The chorus, almost independent of the verse, declares "sometimes when I look in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul" - a lyric so simple in its execution yet, as a result, something that can relate so many different things to so many different people, hence the song's endearing popularity and the singalongs that it never fails to generate. It's that connection that makes Laid as an album stand out amongst James' work in this period.
Next up is Dream Thrum and this shows the impact Eno had on the recording process. Like a few parts of the album, it's more a piece of music than a song and, unlike so many of Booth's lyrics of the 1990s, it's less direct and a little more cryptic. One Of The Three follows a similar path, it alludes to one in three finding peace, indirectly referencing the Lebanese hostage crisis of the time (where one of the three British hostages was a religious envoy) and the cross scene in Waiting For Godot.
Say Something, an older song debuted in Hamburg as far back as April 1992, is more in the traditional single vein, although it definitely has the anthemic tendencies that come through even to today on the live versions reined in on the record. The theme of less is more is one than runs throughout this record, it doesn't feel like they've meticulously pored over every single note in the way that the production on Seven did in parts and it allows these songs the space to breathe.
Five-O and PS are the undoubted centrepieces of the record, both in their position, but it's those two songs more than any other that best encapsulate why this record is so special to so many James fans. They're so understated musically that this actually has the impact of accentuating the music, if that makes any sense. There's a slide guitar and strings floating underneath Five-O as Tim muses on the meaning of love and the age-old question of "is the power of love is worth the pain of loss." Suddenly, almost surreptiously the music lifts off and drives the song to its conclusion. PS comes from an alternative angle, a dark place of self-assessment after the break-up of a long-term relationship - "you liar, you liar, all your words are dust and moonshine" and hints of loneliness "now the world will keep its distance". The music adds to the dark clouds enveloping the song, particularly Larry's slide guitar, a real driving force on this album, until the outro which focuses on Saul's violin, fuelling a note of optimism that things might change.
More positive is the short but exceptionally sweet love song Everybody Knows, the negativity of PS turned round by "when you took me in your arms, I knew I'd revive, you breathed me in so deeply". As with what's gone before, they eschew the kitchen sink approach of Seven for something more simple, more subtle and it feels like James can breathe rather than having to fight the scale of their own ambition and the weight of expectation that had been placed on them just a few years earlier.
Things are stripped right back for Knuckle Too Far, a journey song about months on the road living out of a suitcase, "blurring from town to town", a tale of the existence the overdecade success of the band had brought to them. Its beauty, like so much before it, is the realisation that not every little bit of space needs to be filled, that sometimes less is a damn sight more.
The band are less kind about Low Low Low than the rest of the album, but it's harsh on the song that lightens the mood of a record that's very intense up to this point. What's not to love about a song that doesn't take itself too seriously and introduces itself with the "I'm a member of an ape-like race at the arsehole end of the 20th Century". The less said about the reworking of it into Goal Goal Goal for the 1994 World Cup the better though. Fortunately we're not subjected to that on this compilation.
It's also the perfect introduction for Laid, the title track (although originally called Raid), and if the legend is correct the band would have left this as a demo before Eno insisted there was something to work with. It's a fun song, it's a perfect sub-three minute pop song with its slightly wonky timing, playful and often silly lyric. It broke them in America and soundtracked the American Pie film series.
As if enough fun had been had, Lullaby brings proceedings back down. An eerie song about the impact of child abuse, it's one that has prompted many people to tell the band it got them through some very dark times. The stark simplicity of the chilling bass line and the forceful intonation of certain lines in the song just adds to the claustrophobic feeling.
The album closes with Skindiving, not so much a song, but an ambient piece of mood music, with some gorgeous falsetto singing over the top of it. Its opening line however could sum up this record and the impact of its producer - "put your hands inside the stream, unzip the skin, release the steam." It's exactly what Eno did with James on Laid. He turned them inside out, took them back to the very core of how they wrote when they first started off, jamming, never repeating anything and creating a sound that was organic and natural, and quite often unlike anything anyone else was doing at the time.
Laid is a timeless record, the one that despite not being their biggest commercial success (in the UK at least where both Seven and Gold Mother sold more and which both provided Top Ten singles) that defines them as a band more than any other. With the possible exception of Strip-Mine, it was their most cohesive and coherent album to date, an album with a unity of purpose driven by the methods used in its recording that allowed James to be James. They'd been a band that thrived live and were hemmed in by the constraints of the studio. Their experiences performing acoustic with Neil Young, their own reaction to the stardom thrust upon them and, most importantly, the impact of Eno's working methods freed them from that and Laid was born. Until they split in 2001, they never regained the intensity of this album, the extensive touring that supported it seeing guitarist Larry Gott leave and it took a lengthy hiatus for them to finally recapture that mojo with 2008's Hey Ma, the true follow-up to this album.
The album is also released as a deluxe 2cd edition featuring the original album and a second disc selected from discs 3 and 4. Both albums are also reissued on heavy double vinyl with a 500-only special edition of both available from Universal's webstore.
More about Laid can be found here on the One Of The Three fansite and about Wah Wah here.
James' official website can be found here. They are on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the band - Tim, Larry, Andy and Dave - are also on Twitter.