June 1998 – single & track reviews – James’ ‘Runaground’; The Monsoon Bassoon’s ‘Wise Guy/28 Days in Rocket Ship’; Sleepy People’s ‘All Systems Fail/Every Wave is Higher on the Beach’

28 Jun

James: 'Runaground'

James: ‘Runaground’

OK, it’s a marketing trick, alright? James have a Greatest Hits album out and apparently need filler. So this is one of those irritatingly “exclusive” singles which bands now record especially to give obsessives a reason for buying their compilation albums. But, despite all the incentive to hate it for that reason, this is one of the few times when the phrase “bonus track” actually makes sense.

Runaground is more than satisfying in its own right. Here’s one of James’ occasional warmly blue-tinted songs, coming from one of the reflective lulls between their big anthems (Laid, Sit Down, She’s a Star)and their bursts of dervish doolally (Avalanche, Bring a Gun, Sometimes): with a soft bush of guitars rather than a wall of them, a lilting breathy melody, and Saul Davies’ thin sweet glow of violin coming through like light under a mother’s door. “For every woman you will leave an open door / You find yourself thinking “why can’t I have more?” “.

There’s a directness to Tim Booth at such moments, an unguarded wistful sadness to his herald’s voice as he ditches the metaphysics and the egghead bluster. Runaground’s one for the frightened fool, grasping for every tiny illusory chance in order not to get stuck, only to find they’ve dropped everything that’s worthwhile anyway just to grasp at shadows, and that they’ve gotten stuck anyway. “Oh no, she’s gone, back wherever she came from. / You watch her go, your reactions much too slow. / Let her go. / Runaground.”

Is it one of Booth’s flagellating stabs at his own unreliability, as with Come Home and Don’t Wait That Long? Maybe. One thing’s for sure as the waves of another great James chorale surge up: with this, the Manchester stadium-pop weirdos have touched down gently on the human feelings they neglected too much on the patchy techno moves of the ‘Whiplash‘ album. Experimentation’s nothing without soul and empathy. “You take for granted all the riches of the world / You may have oysters, but you’ll never find your pearls…” Almost a desert island disc.

The Monsoon Bassoon: 'Wise Guy/28 Days in Rocket Ship'

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘Wise Guy/28 Days in Rocket Ship’

For some, it’s best to kick off with a statement rather than an insinuation. Especially when it’s one which no-one can argue with. This debut single’s a double-barrelled shotgun blast of twisted intent. The Monsoon Bassoon (who’ve been regularly carving up Camden indie-pubs for several years now) are allegedly “psychedelic pop”. But if that automatically makes you pull out a checklist and start ticking off (a) druggy sonic syrup, (b) honeybee harmonies, (c) kiddie songs and (d) wobbly blues guitar ad infinitum, forget it. If they’re anything to do with current psych-pop, the Bassoon are Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci shorn of their Brian Wilson fixation, off their heads on chaos theory and frantically shagging a stapling machine. If you could fix it so that a tropical rainstorm could blast through a double reed, you probably would end up with this sort of shrapnel.

Both tracks on this double A-side start out as songs. With the emphasis on “start”: two duelling, slashing guitars and three voices quickly fractalise the songs into manic battling melodies. You get plenty of pop hooks, but before too long they’ve turned into egg-whisks and grappling irons mounting a major assault on pop strongholds. The Monsoon Bassoon can take a song and turn it into a sort of Philip Glass No-Wave party during which The Pixies, Henry Cow, and Television all get smashed and then get caught up in an argument which they enjoy so much that it takes the police to get them out of the building.

The prog word rears its head too, but with any hint of cosiness snipped off by Tim “Cardiacs” Smith’s rough’n’ready garage-y production. If the Bassoon sometimes resemble a younger, more hyperactive King Crimson – those revolving guitars, Sarah Measures’ daredevil flutes and reeds, the way the music booms back and forth between celestial minimalism and bellowing, screaming blasts of red-hot air – they’ve also got a good deal more of a sense of sheer fun and dynamism than Crimson themselves are exhibiting these days.

You might not remember the tunes, but you’ll certainly remember the commotion en route. The choppy pop of Wise Guy explodes like axe-heads coming through hotel-room doors, twirls the odd piroutte as it does so, and leaps up to a trumpeting, triumphant, speaker-melting fanfare. 28 Days in Rocket Ship is superficially calmer until the monster bass riffs and bells rock the belfry to bits. This is hardcore pronk to the max, with a eerie sideswiping charm to compound its relentless ecstatic ferocity. This music yells “fuck you, get out of my way,” and in the same breath, flashing a brilliant grin, adds “but you can come too.” Dancing on giddy splinters.

Sleepy People: 'All Systems Fail/Every Wave is Higher on the Beach'

Sleepy People: ‘All Systems Fail/Every Wave is Higher on the Beach’

With the effusive Phil Sears – a.k.a “Earl Slick” – waltzing out of the band shortly after the release of their second album, Sleepy People have spent some time singerless. Not a band to take things lying down, they’ve recruited new teenaged singer Lee Haley, messed around in the engine room a bit, and got these two songs down on tape, battling on to maintain momentum and taking another look at the songwriting business while they’re at it.

Sleepy leader Paul Hope has never been one to back off from a challenge; and writing for Haley’s lighter, more fragrant tones (a clarinet compared to Sears’ brazen and operatic trumpet) has certainly brought out the best in his glowing psychedelic pop. All Systems Fail compresses and channels the Sleepies’ usual sprawling, ornamental music while losing none of its jack-in-the-box explosiveness. Moogs burble and fizz, Paul’s guitars snarl and swipe like fuzzed-up little kittens, the rhythms are as jumpy and cheekily punka as ska on itching powder, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were juggling the odd plate as they recorded (“What goes round / Must come down”).

Lee skates through the whole thing with a suspicious schoolboy insouciance. Angel-faced or not, this is a guy who managed to shoot himself through the liver while messing about with a pistol between rehearsals: and he warbles like a naughty chorister alongside Rachel’s moonbeam harmonies, while everyone else yelps like dogs on the chorus: “steaming creatures with violent features… wind them up and run!” It could almost be a proggy Bis: glittery hairslides, sherbet flying saucers’n’all.

Every Wave is Higher On the Beach is more familiar Sleepyfare. Epic, complicated, Gongpop stuff, as moonstruck as ever: Rachel sending her flute in rolling smoketrails through Anna’s spooky streaks of keyboard as the band drive through the night. But this time their eccentricity has a much more haunting edge to it. At his best, Paul Hope’s one of the few pop people who can capture the eerie wonder of someone’s more mystical, Fortean Times-y experiences. And this is him at his best – urging a langorous, hypnotised performance out of Lee as a man in the grip of an atavistic compulsion, pulling out and away from the world. “Although I’ve never been, / I know the sea’s not far away from here. / Rumours carried on the waves / will help me find the way that I should go… / Although I’ve never seen, / I know there’s something really big out there. / Is that the moon I see, / or harbour lights leading me astray?”

As the bass throbs and the guitar mounts in a spiral of pulsating alarm, Sleepy People seem to be taking a great leap in the dark, “across the never-ending sand” out upwards from their frequent foolery and into somewhere far more soul-stroking, more threatening. The madness behind the face-paint isn’t so theatrical this time, but is far more effective. Sleepy People have proved they can take another body-blow and come back grinning.

James: ‘Runaground’
Mercury Records, JIMCD 20 / 568 853-2
CD/cassette single
23rd June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) original single best obtained second-hand; song appears on several James compilations – ‘The Best of’ and ‘Fresh As a Daisy – The Singles’.
James online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘Wise Guy/28 Days In Rocket Ship’
Weird Neighbourhood Recordings, WNRS 1 (no barcode)
7-inch vinyl-only double A-side single
June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) original single best obtained second-hand; ‘Wise Guy’ appears on The Monsoon Bassoon’s ‘I Dig Your Voodoo‘ album.
The Monsoon Bassoon online:
MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music

Sleepy People: ‘All Systems Fail/Every Wave is Higher on the Beach’
The Soporific Foundation (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only double-A-side single

Released: June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) original single best obtained second-hand; original song versions currently unavailable, but different versions sung by Tiny Wood appear on the Blue Apple Boy album ‘Salient‘.
Sleepy People online:
Facebook Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Amazon Music

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