James arrives triumphantly from Manchester, England, with a hit called “Laid,” an urgent, compelling, slightly barmy rocker.
The song, a fast, wild ride of sexual passion and paranoia, is the subject of probably the most interesting video on MTV right now. The black-and-white clip shows wan, curly-haired lead singer Tim Booth in a dress, handcuffs dangling from one wrist, sitting in what appears to be a laundromat. While the vocal builds and builds until finally he’s howling like a wolf, other members of the band drift through, some of them also in dresses. The imagery manages to be both ominous and funny, making it the kind of video you can watch again and again and still find interesting.
That one song, and its video, have single-handedly redeemed James, which not very long ago was just one more competent, slick English pop group. Its last album, “Seven,” released in 1992, was so imitative of Simple Minds that every other song came across like a remake of “Don’t You Forget About Me.” Most of the time, Booth sounded like a clone of Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr.
James toured with Neil Young last year and his influence shows. The band’s new album, also called “Laid,” has slow, folk-like songs that sound like early Young, and faster rock songs are marked by Young’s slow-building intensity. Brian Eno produced the album and he’s famous for bringing out the essence, the naturalness of a band (plus his productions always have a bright, lifelike sound).
The band has a long, checkered history. It started in 1983 with the release of a couple of singles that sold moderately well in England. Then it disbanded for two years while Booth was ill with a chronic liver disorder. A 1985 folk-punk LP stiffed, but the band bounced back with a new contract with Sire, which led to James’ first American releases.
But Sire eventually dropped the band. It got signed to Rough Trade and released a couple of albums, then was dropped again, and moved to the Fontana label, where it enjoyed a hit in 1991 with “Sit Down.” Its career has been building ever since.