Tuesday 6 June 2023

James - Be Opened By The Wonderful

James celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their debut single Jimone with a career spanning retrospective with a difference. Instead of the tired old Greatest Hits repackage they've collaborated with composer Joe Duddell on rearranging tracks from across their forty year existence and recorded them with the Orca 22 orchestra and the Manchester Inspirational Voices Gospel Choir. It wouldn't be James though without them not just selecting from their massive array of singles but delving deep into their albums and b-sides to complete a spectacular reimagination of some of their finest moments.

Having worked with Joe Duddell back in 2011 on a tour with orchestra and choir, James regretted never putting that down on vinyl and CD at the time, always promising that they would revisit that collaboration but as time passed it seemed less likely to happen as they hit a fertile patch in writing new material that has given them four top ten albums in the last decade since that tour. With the fortieth anniversary looming though, the band wanted to do something special, both for themselves and the fan base, so they went into Blueprint Studios in October 2022 for four long days to record with the orchestra and gospel choir. 

The results are the twenty songs that make up Be Opened By The Wonderful which serve as both a reminder of James' ability to craft glorious indie pop singles that stand both the test of time and the often radical working they get here as well as soaring dramatic album tracks and b-sides as well as moments of tender poignancy. With Joe Duddell, a long-term James fan at the helm directing everything, the project is in more than safe hands with a man who not just understands the essence of James but isn't afraid to take the risks that the band have along their journey, some of which have diverted them from the path to the very peaks (commercially) of their game.

That risk-taking is evident in opening track Sometimes. It's a James standard, one of the few, if not the only, truly undroppable song from James' ever-changing setlists. However here its signature racing beat that gave it the suffix (Lester Piggott) is replaced by strings transforming it into a thing of rare beauty. It also sets down a marker that this record is not just about slapping a few strings on to the recorded version and calling it orchestrated.  Duddell has picked these songs apart and meticulously reconstructed them.

Love Make A Fool is a brand new song, taken out of the sessions for the next studio album specifically for this project. Rather than simply being a token new song that litter Greatest Hits albums from time immemorial it stands up against everything around it. It picks up the pace two songs in and very much puts down a marker that James are still a living breathing creative force to be reckoned with.

The real highlights of the record are the hidden gems from across the back catalogue that are given centre stage here. Hello is transformed from its weakly executed version on Millionaires into an intense duet between Tim Booth and Chloe Alper and possibly the album's finest moment. Fellow Millionaires track Someone's Got It In For Me feels like the rearrangement lets us see the song through a lens that gives us perfect vision, the strings subtly building the song through the verse until the burst of the chorus where the choir's voices lift Tim up on their shoulders. The Lake, a b-side that really should have made the Laid album, was rich in dramatic tension, but the addition of the orchestra and the choir accentuate it in a way that makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end. These feel like definitive versions of the songs rather than reworks.

Medieval, hidden away on their second album 1988's massively underappreciated Strip-Mine, is set to a military drum march that complements the lyrics perfectly and is rounded off by the choir joining in the "we are sound" outro that made it a favourite and often a set-ender on the recent orchestral tour.  Hey Ma was the only track on this album that wasn't played, although it was a highlight of the 2011 tour. Here the acoustic guitars lead in the first half of the verses before the orchestra come in giving the song a real vibrancy that flows into the chorus and when the choir kick in and the song soars.

Top Of The World is a prime example, Gold Mother's sparse final track is augmented but not overwhelmed by the strings, allowing the song to breathe and thrive and you can hear the emotion in Tim's voice here and on other songs in a way you can't on the original recorded versions. Alaskan Pipeline has a similar impact, the gorgeous vocal harmonies lifting it onto a different plain while the strings melt even the coldest of hearts.

Hymn From A Village, first played as far back as 1982, is ushered in by a trumpet solo and has a duel between drums and strings running through it that gives it a new vitality and freshness that obscures its age. The unfussy production, as across the whole twenty tracks, allow Tim's vocals to sit dead centre. With so many instruments at their disposal, James, Joe and the orchestra have somehow actually given the songs more room to breathe rather than smother them. The only track that doesn't feel like it fully hits the intended mark is Why So Close, an a cappella take on the Stutter / Jimone track with just Tim and the choir.

Some of the big singles are stripped down - She's A Star taking the band mostly out of the picture and letting the strings lead the dance whilst Sit Down, once an albatross around the band's neck, sits happily in the background letting others have their moment in their sun dressed in strings and stripped of any bombast. Moving On starts with Jim's fuzzy bass and with the strings and Andy's trumpet, played as if off in the distance somewhere, give even more emotional gravitas to a song that talks about death in open and brave terms. 

Beautiful Beaches is the sole representative from their last studio album, 2021's All The Colours Of You and the song about fleeing Californian wildfires has been radically revamped, stripped of Jacknife's electronic trickery and transformed. Laid, which finishes the album, is stripped right down like it has in many a radio session over the years, so adds less to the song than the arrangements do across most of the rest of the record.

The remaining four singles retain the upbeat qualities that made them such in the first places. The orchestral version of We're Going To Miss You feels like them finally nailing a song that had potential that never felt completely realised by the original recorded version. The choir bring the chorus to glorious life especially at the end when the music drops out, the strings add menace to the verses, increasing the contrast between the two.  Say Something is revitalised and refreshed by its makeover, a song that never fails to get a positive reaction but which has always had little room live for them to push it in the way others open themselves up to. 

The sense of helplessness of Tomorrow's lyrics is accentuated by the guitars dropping out in the first verse and being replaced by strings then Chloe's vocals come in to duet with Tim. The middle eight build has a different sense of urgency, thrusting guitars replaced by taut strings, but the impact isn't diminished in any way. Lookaway was the lead single of 2011's second mini album The Morning After. Extra vocal harmonies, strings into the chorus and the choir coming in for the outro mean this isn't as radical a change as much of the rest of the album, but like everything else on the album they feel like an accompaniment or a refresh to the original.

Be Opened By The Wonderful is a perfect capture of the evolution of a project that might well have had a different tracklisting and arrangements had it been recorded after the recent tour which saw over a dozen more songs performed. It eschews the easy path of an orchestral Best Of, giving Joe the freedom to select the songs that he feels work best with the addition of orchestration and a choir and allowing his ear and love of the band to combine to create magic. James are at their best when they work with kindred spirits who understand the unique and complex DNA that make up a band that has shape-shifted through four decades refusing to stand still and compromise. 

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

They play a festival exclusive orchestral show at Latitude Festival (July 23) as well as a show in the stunning setting of Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens, Greece (July 10).  The Bath and Nottingham dates that were cancelled are currently being rescheduled.

They also play Wolverhampton The Halls (June 20), Bristol Sounds (23), Liverpool Pier Head (July 2), Halifax Piece Hall (7/8), Thessaloniki Moni Lazariston (12), Laois Forest Fest (21), Dundee Slessor Gardens (28), Y Not Festival (29), Darlington Arena (August 5), London Crystal Palace South Facing (11) and Jersey Weekender (September 3).

We also run the One Of The Three James archive, the most detailed resource for information about the band, and the site also has a Facebook and Twitter page.

TimBoothLyricADay, whose posts often lead to Tim explaining his thought processes behind the lyrics, can be found on Twitter and Facebook.


Follow Even The Stars on Twitter at @eventhestarsuk and like our Facebook page for all the latest updates

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