Tuesday 8 March 2016

James - Girl At The End Of The World

Girl At The End Of The World is James' fourteenth studio album and their third full one since they reformed in 2007. For a band well into their fourth decade, it's an astonishingly upbeat vibrant record that reflects a shift in the band's creative head space. It's a record built around grooves the like you've never heard from James before and probably wouldn't expect, but they pull it off with aplomb. It's a James record alright, but not as you know them.

The album opens with Bitch and it's the band laying down their marker for what's to come. It's two minutes before we hear from Tim as the tone is set, its furious groove propelling the song along until Mr Booth enters musing on why despite all the trappings and conveniences of modern living that "my life is rich and full so why do I bitch bitch bitch?" Whilst the familiar warmth is there in the voice, that groove makes it an unsettling challenging start to the album and the perfect scene-setter.

Those of you that follow the band will be familiar with the next track and lead single To My Surprise. The influence of Mark Hunter's keyboards, one of the stand out features of this record, is there right from the start. It's far from standard James single fare, this one as it ducks and darts through a number of different sections, coming back to its unmistakable almost exultant chorus of "were you just born an arsehole?" As it reaches the middle section you can hear the improvisational spirit that James channel live coming through on this record possibly more than they've ever succeeded in doing before and it sounds like they're having a lot of fun.

Next up is the follow-up single Nothing But Love, a reminder to those that have forgotten that James can deliver songs that tug at the heartstrings on the rare occasion Tim's lyrical mind turns to love (Just Like Fred Astaire and Hey Ma's Upside being cases in point). It's unquestionably the most immediate and accessible song on the album, euphoric about that moment of falling in love and the impact love has. The layers of vocals feel like a celebration of that, emphasising the joy of those emotions and the revelatory life moment falling in love is - "earthquake, avalanche, volcano."

It's at this point the record diverts away from what you'd traditionally expect for a James record. Think back to the sonic experimentation that characterised most of Whiplash, but on Girl At The End Of The World it's far more successful, hitting the mark each time and more focused than the kitchen sink elements that made that record feel at times like they were trying just too hard. Attention starts with a lilting rolling keyboard and Tim's vocals sound as warm and emphatic as they've ever done. It's a song of two halves, as are many of James' best journey songs, a drumbeat kicks in that helps prepare the listener for what comes next, the very polite delicately crafted first half transformed by an explosion into a violent crescendo of sound whilst Tim tells the tale of a fire ceremony back in his new home of Topanga Canyon. The moment it descends (or ascends depending on where you stand) into sonic cacophony is a portent for what's to come later in the second half of the record.

Next up is Dear John, the next single to be taken from the album according to comments at the recent launch shows for the album. It's a simmering kiss off of a song, underpinned by a huge electronic beat that James have only hinted at previously in their long career. Lyrically it's the musical equivalent of the Dear John letter of the title in which he announces his departure from a situation unknown "I wrote this song to tell you I'm leaving, afraid to say these words to your face, must be better than a letter, a text or an email, my ride stops here at the end of the line." What the song does remind us, and Girl At The End Of The World does this more frequently than any James album since Stutter, is that they're a band that's never content standing still, looking for a challenge for themselves as the only sure way of being certain of challenging their audience.

Feet Of Clay is one of those curious songs that James produce every so often that leave you stunned at the beauty of its simplicity. It's possibly Tim's finest moment on the record, the tone to the voice is so rich and redolent, the choice of where the emphasis is on a word or a line adding to the impact of it. It's also the calm before the storm.

The press so far for the album has talked about the dance beats on the album and it's the next three songs where this is at its most evident. It's also James at their loosest in the structure of the songs that they've been for some time. Whilst this would probably be a bad thing for many bands, it's when James are at their absolute best, recreating the feel of their live shows. The frantic insistent beat that underpins Surfer's Song accelerates at such at rate you feel it's going to career out of control as Tim "here comes, here comes, here comes the swell", but it never does and that's what makes James at their best such a thrilling band. 

The roller coaster ride continues with Catapult from the jagged guitar riff that ushers it in, Tim challenging the protagonist of the song to "don't expect me to be not thinking out loud", but like so many of his best lyrics, this feels like a stream of consciousness, spitting out one lyric after another and declaring "don't ask this song bird to hide his song lines, sing what's on my mind" whilst his band mates create all kinds of merry hell behind him, a groove-laden bass here, flashes of brass there.

Move Down South starts with a menace, a pounding insistent drum beat calling the tune as Tim tells a strange tale of goings on in the Californian wild lands around his home so there's talk of coyotes and wells being dried out. We've talked already about journey songs, and the band talk fondly about them in interviews, and Move Down South is the perfect example of this on Girl. It's got so many parts, so many components to it such as strings slowing it down and the uplifting almost evangelical layered vocals as it reaches its denouement. It feels like they've managed to merge enough ideas for an album into one song without it ever feeling cramped or needing breathing space.  

Next up is Alvin. It lasts two minutes fifteen seconds and is sung, for the most part in broken French. Were it not for the latter, it could be perfect radio-friendly single material. Think the slightly daft bonkers but impossible to ignore structure of Laid and you have something approaching the music. It took a while to get used to the singing in French after what's gone before it on the record, but with time you can't help but fall for its slightly weird unsettling charm. They probably wouldn't have got away with this song on any of their other previous albums, but here it fits in, possibly against our better judgement.

Waking starts with one of the few pieces of straight brass on the record, such is the way Andy Diagram manages to cajole so many different sonic flavours from his trumpets. Whilst it's not one of their most complex songs, it's another one that sounds like little else they've done before as well as providing an acutely observed piece of social commentary about the state of the nation "brothers, sisters, we've been fools, they don't want us to fulfil, just enough to pay your bills."

The album concludes with the title track and it's one of the two songs, alongside Nothing But Love, that come closest to what you might call traditional James. Its chorus manages that trick of mixing the impending doom of "remind me to breathe at the end of the world" as a car careers headlong towards us with a celebratory, uplifting feel. It also contains our favourite lyric on the album "while this world can drive me fucking mad, just off to the side is love and laughter" and the middle eight has that soaring lift that characterises so much of their best work.

Girl At The End Of The World is the sound of a band with a restless spirit, never standing still. They've never created a groove as rich and deep as they have on this record. Whilst it might take a little getting used to, unusually for a band that has always had an immediate hit on the listener, it's the most purposeful record they've made for a long long time and Tim's voice has never sounded as dynamic as it does here. It makes you want to dance in a way James never have before, there's the big anthemic songs to placate those who still hark back to the glory days of the nineties and it's proof that their creative juices are as fluid and diverse as they've ever been despite the advance of time.

James' Girl At The End Of The World tour will call at the following venues :

Mon 2 May Colston Hall, Bristol
Tue 3 May Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea
Wed 4 May Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
Fri 6 May The Forum, Kentish Town, London
Sat 7 May Brixton Academy, London
Mon 9 May The UEA, Norwich
Tue 10 May Bournemouth Academy
Thu 12 May Venue Cymru, Llandudno
Fri 13 May Manchester Arena
Sat 14 May Leeds First Direct Arena
Mon 16 May Hull City Hall
Tue 17 May Newcastle City Hall
Thu 19 May The Hydro, Glasgow
Fri 20 May Barclaycard Arena , Birmingham
Sat 21 May Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham

James' official website can be found here.   They are on Facebook and Twitter.  Some of the band - TimLarryAndy and Dave - are also on Twitter.

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  1. Good review. I still think the album is missing something and the songs sounded much more vibrant live in Manchester last month. But a grower.

  2. Interesting and detailed review. You may have a look at mine: http://japprecie.raidghost.com/james-girl-end-world