February 1997 – album reviews – James’ ‘Whiplash’ (“dabbles in new styles, mostly unsatisfactorily”)

27 Feb

James: 'Whiplash'

James: ‘Whiplash’

When a band have made it, are popular, and their songs are heard in every commercial outlet, a person is simply playing a game of pathetic one‑upmanship if they smugly proclaim: “Oh, I liked them when they were a cult band. They’ve gone all pop now!” These are very sad people.

Ahem. Now…

I liked James when they were a cult band. They’ve gone all pop now. Yes, I admit it. I am a sad person and I claim my five pounds.

In truth, I lost touch with James after ‘Gold Mother’, when they entered the pop stratosphere and those T‑shirts became ubiquitous. My attitude to Sit Down exemplifies my attitude to ‘Whiplash’. Sit Down started life as a strumalong of identification with those who felt alone or slightly dispossessed, insecure. It was re‑released as an epic soundtrack which seemed to command “You WILL Sit Down!!”. And whilst every baggy‑shirted indie kid and raver performed the increasingly meaningless charade of plonking their arses on the stage, that song (and James themselves) sounded, to these ears, like a New Age, slightly more subtle Simple Minds. When my mother chose Sit Down as her favourite song, opined that Tim Booth was “a nice young man” and started asking me which one in the band was “James”, my interest in the band as a pop entity virtually evaporated. (You none‑more‑punk, you! ‑ ED.)

‘Whiplash’ promises much. It is heralded as “a return to form”. For old James fans, this is a pronouncement we’ve heard before. But the opening track, Tomorrow, has the pulsing rhythm, the simplicity and directness, the expanding layers of sound that I so remember were classic James; and so it is better to forget, perhaps, that this song is about three years old and first appeared in embryonic form on ’94’s experimental excursion ‘Wah Wah’. Elsewhere, Lost A Friend features verses with a skeletal musical backing and Booth returning to hitting all those strange half‑note harmonies of old, before breaking into the obligatory big chorus. It’s still James’ version of their Big Music, but it no longer lumbers like an over‑produced fabrication as in recent years. Sadly, trite lyrics like “my TV’s telling me / that all of our money goes into the military” and “I see some soldiers with guns / they are killing for fun / they are killing to entertain me” do not raise my political consciousness one iota. May I call you Bono, Tim?

This album’s biggest problems come where the much‑vaunted contemporary feel exerts itself. There is always an awful doubt when a band returns from a long break saying that they’ve been listening to techno/trip‑hop/drum’n’bass/ambient (or whatever; delete as applicable), and the new masterpiece is produced under these influences. Eighty per cent of ‘Whiplash’ features these dabbles in new styles, mostly unsatisfactorily.

The album’s first single, She’s A Star, is the most startling and perhaps most successful, sounding like Suede-lite. But it lacks Brett Anderson’s detailing of urban degeneration, suburbia and glamorous smack habits. With Suede, She’s A Star would be blackly ironic ‑ she would be a lonely girl in a dead commuter belt, or a wasted junkie. But Tim means it ‑ she really is a “star”. That’s lovely for him and her (whoever she may be), but ultimately rather naive for us.

Go To The Bank is roughly the third song on the album that mentions TVs, so James have obviously spent their time away wisely. Seemingly a diatribe against the evils of money, the lyrics leave a bad taste in the mouth with the repeated line “it all belongs to Caesar…” Is someone rather peeved about recently having to settle a large bill for unpaid taxes, eh? This track and the next, Play Dead, are full of techno effects that ultimately do not go far enough. They dabble in electronica, but still align themselves to typical James nervy strumalongs. But the two styles don’t gel, and they’d be more satisfying as one or the other. Play Dead, in particular, could be one of James’ truly haunting acoustic numbers if it dropped the excess techno zeitgeist baggage: it is one of the few obviously beautiful melodies here.

Greenpeace (oh Tim, do you have to be so fucking obvious? What next? Veggie? ’90s Hippie? Beanbag?) is a dark, slightly rockier take on trip‑hop, alternating between distorted vocals and ambience in the verses and a chorus that feels like it’s built on the bassline of Massive Attack’s Safe From Harm. It is leaden, and rather desperate to show how contemporary it is. Where James once had that aura of being a band of weird but pleasant loners down the end of the corridor, they now come across more like insufferably tedious born‑again Christians; but, as Greenpeace shows, ones who are desperate to prove to the church elders that they are hip and rebellious, and that “this is what the kids are into.”

It’s all so frustrating when elsewhere there’s such a blatant demonstration of the simple, peculiar emotional alchemy that James can muster so well. I’m talking about Blue Pastures, a quiet, near‑acoustic whisper of a coda to ‘Whiplash’s technophilic sprawl. Jim Glennie’s bass rings like a sleepy bell, guitars fill out dark clouds in the sky, and James’ old Patti Smith influences are evoked once more as Booth unwinds the story: someone quietly putting things to rights, then walking out into the snow to die. Their thoughts slow, the ground gets closer. Snow covering. Peace arriving. Fade‑out. Perfection ‑ for once, we respond with tears of compassion and recognition rather than of frustration.

But in the reckoning, this album is a disappointment after the marvellous and underrated ‘Wah Wah’. Which proved that, in the right laid‑back conditions and with the right production influence from Brian Eno (who part‑produced and “interfered” with this one, but evidently not enough), James could come up with the post‑modern experimental pop they so desperately seek on ‘Whiplash’. Chained, often rather clumsily, to the typical James of old, the two styles pull against each other. U2 have managed to cling to the bandwagon by enlisting the best technoheads around. If James want to do likewise, they’d better get someone who can do a better job at improving the rather leaden attempts at electronica on here. Or they can forget the zeitgeist and return to being the pre‑pomposity weirdo folkies still to be glimpsed occasionally.

Which way, Tim?

(review by Col Ainsley)

James: ‘Whiplash’
Mercury Records/Fontana Records, 534 354‑2 (731453435421)
CD/cassette album
Released: 24th February 1997

Get it from:
on general release.

James online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube

One Response to “February 1997 – album reviews – James’ ‘Whiplash’ (“dabbles in new styles, mostly unsatisfactorily”)”

  1. Dann Chinn December 7, 2018 at 9:09 am #

    Another “Col Ainsley” example of Vaughan Simons and myself writing together. As with most of the Col reviews, this is mostly Vaughan’s work. I think the only thing that I added was part of the paragraph on Blue Pastures, ameliorating some of Vaughan’s scorn and arguing that it was one occasion on ‘Whiplash’ in which James were staying in touch with their artistic routes. Fortunately, Vaughan agreed. I wish I’d persuaded him to review ‘Wah Wah’, though.

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