Melody Maker 3/21/98

-Tim: It's Nice But Dim! by Tony Naylor

James: The Best Of

THOSE surgical collars and osteopaths must be costing Fontana a fortune. It's the only explanation for this wholly superfluous cash-in. One, irony fans, that's preceded by a wonderful single decrying pop's corporate manoeuvering. And to thing James were once laughed out of town for their ernest correctness (yoga, vegetarianism, giving songs to Greenpeace).

So, "Best Of..." - some singles thrown together in no particular order - is not James' full top, it's not even a lovingly executed comma. "Hymn From The Village", their 1984 debut for Factory, is the final track, what's the betting it was the last track Fontana got clearance for? Tracing the threads of James' development, then, from sage mavericks to bloated rockers and back, is impossible. You'd have thought Tim Booth, of all people, would have know the importance of feng shui.

Context apart, however, what a glorious statement of intent "Hymn..." still is. Feverish tin-pot percussion play giddily with African pop-meets-Orange Juice guitars, as Booth hollers: "This language used is all worn out/A walking corpse that won't play dead". If Morrissey had kitchen sink couplets, Tim Booth certainly had the imagery and philosophical nous. But then whadda ya know - "Best Of..." jumps five years.

"Stutter" and "Stripmine", James' Sire albums, are totally ignored. There are bound to be notable absences, but a James "Best of..." without the intelligent, ragged, effervescent pop of "Charlie Dance", "What For", or "Johnny Yen" (oh sorry, a live version is included on the limited-edition CD) is like a 747 without wings.

Such ramshackle, indignant terrace anthems have always been James' forte, but, this compilation kicks in - 1990's "How Was It For You" - when their initial gusto was already at its peak. At that time, their gigs were stunning affairs where startlingly beautiful tales of human frailty (see "Out to Get You") could silence their devoted Manc hordes and the Balearic orgasm of "come Home" would utterly possess them. "Sit Down" is till the perfect mass communion for those who find themselves ridiculous. Everyone under the age of 21, that is. But as Madchester ushered James in, their essential idiosyncrasies - Booth's "Nurse, he's out of bed" ranting, Buddhism, splenetic guitars, free gigs in Manchester bus stations and (yikes!) teaching the Inspiral Carpets how to live off T-shirt sales - already seemed to be ebbing away.

Two years later and, with America calling, things were seriously awry. "Born of Frustration", "Seven", "Sound", "Ring the Bells", the last three in one indigestible lump here, are just turgid, pompous, nonsense. The fire and brimstone ire had become a God complex.

Not that, as "Best Of..." accidentally proves, everything is lost. "Laid", which still too mature by half, produced the barber shop quartet apocalypse of "Sometimes" and who else would get the line "She only comes when she's on top", on "TOTP"? While last year's ferocious "Tomorrow" and new single "Destiny Calling" are perfect, rumbustious pop, the adrenaline is blunting their bombastic tendencies once more.

Buy the single, buy the old albums, but avoid "Best Of..." completely. Someone in Fontana's marketing department deserves their P45. Together we can make it happen.

2/5 stars