April 29, 2016 James – Girl at the End of the World (Album Review)
James has been associated with the so-called Britpop movement, which peaked in the 1990s, despite the fact that its origin is actually more rooted in the Post-Punk, New Wave, and Indie Pop music that flourished in the 1980s. The English band was formed in 1982 in Manchester, England, in the wake and midst of similarly styled guitar-oriented bands that many journalists collectively classify as Jangle Pop, such as The Smiths, Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, The Farmer’s Boys, Guadalcanal Diary, A House, The Railway Children, and R.E.M. In its long and enduring, albeit on-and-off history, James has released thirteen full-length studio albums, from 1986’s Stutter to the recently unleashed oeuvre, Girl at the End of the World. Currently, James consists of founding member Jim Glennie (bass) along with longtime members Tim Booth (lead vocals), Larry Gott (lead guitar), David Baynton-Power (drums), Saul Davies (rhythm guitar, violin), Mark Hunter (keyboards, piano), and Andy Diagram (trumpet, percussion).
Released on March 18, 2016, Girl at the End of the World is a stylistically freer and more relaxed affair than James’ latter albums. It begins with the lyrically provocative “Bitch,” whose driving bassline in the two-minute-long intro has a ring of U2’s “Vertigo” to it; and any New Wave fanatic should welcome this as a marvellous melodic connection, whether it was intentional or coincidental. Following next is the upbeat ‘Monalisa song’ entitled “To My Surprise,” which still carries a hangover of U2 sensibility, owing to the scaling bass, tribal drumbeat, and angular guitar strums; however, the moment Booth’s voice comes in, the initiated will then unmistakably realize that it is James that he is listening to after all. The mood becomes a bit reflective and nostalgic with the charismatic and subtle but pounding chime of “Nothing But Love,” which sounds like a throwback to the band’s 1992 album, Seven. It is certainly musically akin to songs like “Ring the Bells,” “Sound,” and “Born of Frustration.” The slow charm flows flawlessly into the piano-led “Moonlight Sonata”-inspired “Attention,” building up into a Pet Shop Boys-style Electronic Dance groove and then climaxing to a crunchy guitar-soaked rhythm complementing Booth’s raspy, angst-filled vocal attack. It is indeed an attention-getting track, in the general context of the album.
The dark Pop leaning of “Dear John” takes James to Synthpop territory, invoking sonic references to some of the genre’s iconic pioneers; in particular Depeche Mode, especially their Gothic excursion in 1986 via Black Celebration (“It Doesn’t Matter Two”), and also Erasure with the duo’s bittersweet-themed 1991 album, Chorus (“Breath of Life”). The mood switches to something gentle and breezy with “Feet of Clay,” finding Booth in his tuneful vocal disposition.
Whereas “Surfer’s Song” lifts the album once again to the trademark galloping rhythm of James’ music, the ensuing funky track, aptly titled “Catapult,” shoots the band’s spirits to higher aural realms with its fast tempo. It would be unsurprising if a Britpop aficionado hears an echo of Jesus Jones’ “International Bright Young Thing” in the distorted character of the guitar parts of “Catapult.” With the following “Move Down South,” James was basically returning to its typical guitar-oriented Indie Pop, with a dash of the experimental quality of its 1994 album, Wah Wah. Still bathed in the same sunny and upbeat rhythmic afterglow, “Alvin” keeps the listener’s’ attention and their feet’s restlessness on the dancefloor, and then it finishes with a mélange of horns and a cappella vocal harmony. The penultimate “Waking” features a catchy horn section that drapes the entire song in glossy beauty. The album then fittingly closes with the title track, whose rhythm, melodies, instrumentation, as well as Booth’s falsetto-flavored vocal play are undoubtedly James in its most appealing and engaging sound.
While 2014’s La Petite Mort is a more progressive, more thematically and stylistically solid as well as consistent affair, Girl at the End of the World, in contrast, may be hailed as more well-rounded, employing perhaps every musical style that James had explored in their prolific discography, making this new release both familiar-sounding and contemporarily slick at the same time. CrypticRock gives the album 4 out of 5 stars.