Vox 4/98

-As If Punk Never Happened by Sam Steele

At a recent acoustic performance Tim Booth entertained the assembled media masses with funny little anecdotes, gentle A&R-men jokes and introduced 'Ring the Bells' with a poignant true story. After a gig in America two teenagers approached Booth and asked if he had ever been involved in a religious cult. Obviously, apart from the odd well-documented dalliance with holistic-style new age 'awareness-raising' aromatherapy stuff, our Tim has remained unconvinced by bonkers brainwashers and crypto-Christians. The kids, however, had been born into a cult commune and had so identified with the sentiments of 'Ring the Bells' (which they played endlessly), that they were inspired to escape the clutches of their over-zealous elders and run away into the wicked world.

Were the punk wars fought to establish the righteousness of jingly-jangly folk melodies? Did Kurt Cobain die for us to become inspired by such conformist words of positive affirmation as "Gotta keep awake to what's happening" and "I can't see the day through my ambition"? Ambition?!

This however, is possibly James at their most rebellious, as radical as a James song can be without exhorting all the loonies, losers and nobby-no-mates in the world to come out and, like, sit down (legs crossed, fingers-on-lips) next to them. Not that you have to be a groin-grinding, mascara-caked, leather-thronged, drug-addicted pantomime loon to be a successful rock'n'roll star. As James indisputably prove, a sober suit and a well-turned tune can work nicely too.

The evidence is all here, spanning some 15 years of finely crafted, tidy little songs that steadfastedly refuse to bow to fashion and ditch the fiddle and fol-di-dee bits. Their second ever single, 1985's Factory-released 'Hymn From A Village' (itself an earlier incarnation of 1994's chirpy 'Laid' without the yodeling bits), sits easily alongside two brand new songs written the better part of two decades later, the wiry wit of new single 'Destiny Calling' - wherin our Tim wants to be covered in chocolate and cloned for posterity, apparently - and 'Run Aground'.

The biggest difference the years have made to James, as New Order, The Smiths, Happy Monday, house music, E, electronic et al ebbed and flowed through their home-town of Manchester, is better production. Experimentation is most definitely not for them (collaborating with Brian Eno isn't exactly a bold step into the unknown): deviation from a flash of electric guitar here, a rumble of bass there and massed three-part choruses and lyrical rounds everywhere else is inconceivable. And this is no bad thing, if David Bowie's ill-advised fashion floundering and recent dips into bungle are anything to go by.

So 'Best of James' segues effortlessly from 1985 to 1998, breezes by on the warm currents of songs from 1990's 'Gold Mother' (including the anthemic 'Sit Down' and stadium jaunt 'How Was It For You'), drifts across '92's horn'n'string-soaked 'Born of Frustration', the echo-effect 'Sound' and the aforementioned '...Bells', treats you to four tracks from 1994's 'Laid' and re-acquaints you with last year's tonsil-tickling 'She's A Star' and the treacly hubris of 'Tomorrow'. The problem is that while Booth & co undoubtedly write great singles, over the course of a career retrospective the similarities are far more noticeable than any differences. This 'Best Of' could easily be re-titled 'The One Great Big Hit And Loads of Songs That Sound Similar' which, minor teen cult rebellion or no, is hardly the stuff of crossroads, midnight devils and sold souls of legend.

"We may be gorgeous/So we may be famous/Come back when we're getting old", teases Tim. Well, if the first 15 years are anything to go by, one will expect nothing to have changed.

3/5 Stars