James - Village Fire

Village Fire

Released 1985 on Factory
Reviewed by Jasonaparkes, 06/05/2007ce

Side One:

1. what's the world (1:59)
2. folklore (2:50)
3. fire so close (1:51)

Side Two:

1. if things were perfect (3:06)
2. hymn from a village (2:53)

Side One was the 'Jimone' e.p. from 1983; the second side 'James II' from 1985. Side One written by Booth/Glennie/Whelan/Gilbertson; Side Two written by Booth/Gott/Glennie/Whelan.

James (1983/1985):

Tim Booth - vocals
Jim Glennie - bass
Paul Gilbertson - guitar 'Jimone'
Gavin Whelan - drums
Larry Gott - guitar 'James II'

The band called James had existed in several guises - Volume Distortion, Tribal Outlook, Model Team etc - prior to naming themselves after their bass-player. It was the early Eighties...don't ask me! The decidely amateur band appeared live many times, including a support slot with The Fall and a gig at the Hacienda - their sound based on improvisation and a chemistry pooling their amateur approach to musicianship. Something decidely quirky was occurring, a blend of stock jangly-indie rock with something else, jerky odd rhythms and bizarre lyrics from Tim Booth. Enter Tony Wilson...

The initial James line-up of Booth, Gilbertson, Glennie and Whelan recorded the 'Jimone' e.p. at the legendary Strawberry Studios - the three tracks still sound very distinctive and slightly odd. 'what's the world' sounding like Josef K playing rockabilly, James supported The Smiths at the time, and it was telling that Morrissey and co would later cover 'what's the world.' I think Booth's vocal style was definitely adopted by the one they called Mozzer - The Smiths' version was released as a live track on one of the formats of the 'Strangeways...'-single 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me' (if memory recalls). At just under two-minutes, 'what's the world' is a very odd thing, kind of hypnotic, straight to the point - the vocals coming straight in, the guitars, bass, and drums settling inyo a rhythm and surreal lyrics - apparently cobbled together from words the band liked from magazines. There's even a chorus of sorts and at the end a dirgy bassline, worthy of Joy Division, before Booth comes back in with his vocals. Not what you'd expect from the 1990s version of the band.

'folklore' is a minimal piece with chanting vocals, the track seemingly lead by the bass-line, the guitars and drums following - this one is kind of chorus-less and curious. I wonder what Tony Wilson saw that others couldn't? - it sounds throughly alien next to 'Blue Monday' or 'Confusion.' Maybe he had his finger on the pulse, though it should be noted that lots of curious acts found themselves on Factory. The 'Jimone' e.p. ended with 'fire so close', a song that is a relation of the folky 'why so close' from 1986's debut album 'Stutter.' It opens with Booth's vocals prior to a jerky indie funk bursting into life, the band sounding like they'd heard labelmates A Certain Ratio and translated that influence into their sound. At 1:51 duration it's over before it begins, James here setting the model later adopted by bands like Happy Mondays and New Fast Automatic Daffodils - taking dance rhythms and applying them to indie rock, though they are not to blame for later terms like 'indie dance.'

Things went odd for the band called James - Gilbertson became a victim of drugs (not uncommon for Whalley Range), the band became distrustful of Factory, guitar-tutor Larry Gott joined as a replacement for Gilbertson, and Booth and Glennie joined a sect called 'Lifewave.' The 'James II' e.p. eventually came out in 1985, the band making the cover of the NME, and Factory later issuing both e.p.'s on this 12" 'Village Fire.'

'if things were perfect' is probably even odder than the first single, a slow track opening with a dubby bass-line played tight-as - it seems very odd that the current version of James have started playing this again! The drums have a military quality, while Gott's guitar-playing is much more fluid than Gilbertson's - as wonderfully jangly as Johnny Marr's at the time, though the song is much more free-form - decidely unconventional song structures dominate. 'James II' closes with 'Hymn from a Village', a song that opens with Whelan's odd drum rhythms which remind me of the first drummer fron Sonic Youth, very odd un-rock and roll drumming. The song builds and builds as the bass and guitar mesh together and Booth lets his nonsense spill out - "heard you calling through the drumbeat...", "Study death in style", "This song's made-up/made second-rate"...who knows what the lyrics are about? Again, a definite example of obscure charm, James had something, though it's possible it was just a certain quirky nature.

They decided to turn down Factory's offer to record an album for them, instead signing to Sire records and recording two flop albums 'Stutter' and 'Strip Mine' (1988) prior to being dropped. 'Stutter' definitely continues the approach of the material collected on 'Village Fire' , containing such great tracks as 'Johnny Yen', 'Scarecrow' and 'Billy's Shirts.' Not sure why Seymour Stein and co didn't drop them then, 'Strip Mine' was more folky and again not that bad, but possibly not quite right. 1986's 'Sit Down' e.p. (which didn't include their most famous song, kept from Sire and released on Rough Trade in 1989, prior to the hit single version in 1991) contained songs like 'Chain Mail' and 'Hup-Springs', which didn't sound quite right. Things would make more sense on the limited edition live album 'One Man Clapping', released on Rough Trade in 1989. Songs from the two Sire albums, 'Chain Mail' and 'Hup-Springs' all came alive and were much more coherent performed by the tight live unit that were James #2. The manic 'Stutter', which survived in live shows for the next year or so, was another great direction - the live version on the second single version of 'Come Home' even better...

Things would change, there were hints on 'One Man Clapping' with the addition of keyboards on a few tracks and the decidely anthemic 'Burned'. An on-stage fight between Booth and Whelan lead to the latter's exit, and his replacement David Baynton-Power initiated a change in the band. James once again had commercial prospects, releasing the celebrated indie originals of 'Sit Down' and 'Come Home', as their line-up took on multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies, keyboard player Mark Hunter, and culty percussionist/trumpet player Andy Diagram (which reminds me, there's a recent Diagram Brothers compilation). The band that were James incarnations 1 and 2 would cease to exist, the 3rd and subsequent incarnations would sign to Fontana, have hits, play large venues, and all that...

Waning commercial success with 'Millionaires' and 'Pleased to Meet You' lead to Booth leaving the band to pursue his solo career (he had released one album with David Lynch-composer Angelo Badalamenti) and attempt to break into acting - playing Judas in the bizarre 'Manchester Passion' a few years ago and a villain in the Christopher Nolan's rebranded 'Batman' movie. James attempted to carry on without him, but seemed to have split, while Gott walked out of the band in the late 90s and found himself pursuing employment in furniture restoration. The band reformed, playing a sell-out tour and releasing the 'Fresh as a Daisy' compilation, the two-disc version of which includes all of the 'Village Fire' e.p. and a few other oddities - though not the hard-to-find Rough Trade singles. Their later commercial material generally leaves me cold, but this early work has some charm - the band managing to play several of these tracks alongside new songs and the expected hits. I've always liked 'Village Fire', with 'One Man Clapping', it's probably the best thing James released - an Unsung candidate, I'm convinced...

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