ONE of the more unusual concert pairings of recent years had to be Neil Young and the group James.
After all, James made its reputation playing tuneful, full-bodied pop wth a strong British accent, while Young is the quintessential folk rocker. Yet, in the summer of 1992, James opened for Young on an ampitheater tour – and played for the first time in an acoustic format.
The James record that followed the tour, “Laid,” makes it obvious that the Young tour – as well as the experience of working for the first time with legendary producer Brian Eno – left an indelible imprint on the band.
The buoyant melodies that have always defined James’ music remain, especially on such appealing tracks as “Sometimes,” “One of the Three” and “Say Something.” But with liberal use of acoustic instruments and simpler arrangements, “Laid” brings more of a folk element into the band’s sound. Eno’s leaner production style also helped to capture more of the warmth and spontaneity the band displays in its live shows.
In a recent interview, bassist Jim Glennie described the evolution of the band’s sound and recording approach during the “Laid” sessions. “I think it was basically circumstances, kind of, that dictated how the album started,” Glennie said, “Yeah, initially, it was the Neil Young acoustic tour. And then when we went back in the studio, we picked up our electric instruments again, but (playing acoustically) just changed the way we heard things, the way we heard the songs. We just chilled out a lot more basically.
“So that did affect the songs in the studio, and also Brian’s idea of keeping things very simple, very live, no overdubs – virtually no overdubs. It had to sound like a band. It had to sound quite real.
“I think that all contributed . . . so we didn’t end up with an overproduced, multi-layered studio album. The songs are quite simple, quite stripped.”
American fans apparently like the direction James took on “Laid.” The record is easily the band’s most popular stateside, with the title track reaching No. 3 on modern-rock radio. This may not be a breakthrough of Pearl Jam proportions, but for a band that remained virually invisible in America for a decade, it represents a major step forward.
Formed in 1983 by Glennie, singer Tim Booth, guitarist Larry Gott and the original drummer, Gavan Whelan, James was an early member of the then-burgeoning Manchester music scene in England.
The group debuted with a British EP, “Village Fire,” then landed an American record deal with Sire in 1985. It was not a smooth marriage. The band’s two Sire releases, “Stutter” and “Strip Mine,” drew their share of positive press, but this never translated into airplay or sales.
By 1988, James had hit a crossroads. Money was tight, and the Sire partnership would soon dissolve. Around the same time, Whelan quit. The band responded with a major shift by adding not only a new drummer, David Baynton-Power, but also keyboardist Mark Hunter, violinist Saul Davies and trumpter Andy Diagram, who left the band after the Neil Young tour.
After releasing a British-only live record, “One Man Clapping,” on Rough Trade Records, the band signed with Phonogram in Britain and Fontana/Mercury in America. The labels, both part of PolyGram Records, reintroduced James in very different ways on either side of the Atlantic.
In Britain, a studio album, “Gold Mother,” was released in 1990, and it became the band’s breakthrough back home. The song “Sit Down” reached No. 2, and another single, “Come Home,” also charted strongly.
In this country, though, Fontana/Mercury opted to issue a self-titled best-of collection, which included those two hit songs as well as earlier tracks.
These releases were followed in 1992 by the album “Seven,” which produced another British hit single, “Sound,” and gave the band a first taste of success in the U.S. when the song “Born of Frustration” received notable college-radio play.
“Laid,” though, is clearly a high-water mark both in terms of the quality of the music and its popularity. The CD has drawn critical raves, with Musician magazine even calling James the last great hope among British bands for achieving major success in America. Glennie is reluctant to be seen as a standard-bearer for British music, although he did say that his country’s music has stagnated at the moment.
“We’ve never felt really, you know – we’re not a nationalistic band,” he said. “So when we come over and play wherever it is, you never particularly feel like you’re representing your country. You know what I mean? You’re a band and you play, and they either like you or they don’t.”
Glennie clearly likes how James is sounding these days. He gives Eno, whose many production credits include U2 and Lou Reed, considerable credit for refocusing the group’s sound and making the “Laid” project especally rewarding.
“I think that Brian, he’s a great problem solver,” Glennie said. “He’s not just an intellectual, he’s a great kind of down-to-earth problem solver.
“And that’s what we needed. we needed someone to see our faults, basically, and try to get them out of the way. It’s not like we needed someone to work on the bare bones of the songs and help on, like, bass drum parts or guitar sounds. We just needed somebody to basically sort us out, almost like people management.
“He did that incredibly well, and very diplomatically as well. There wasn’t that much friction involved with people letting go of their ideas. Because the thing is, there are six of us, and we all have plenty of ideas. We can drag a song off in six different directions for days on end if we’re not careful. Eno somehow managed to involve everybody but keep it going in one direction rather than six.
“I think we’re at our peak in songwriting. I just don’t know how long it’s going to last,” Glennie said with a chuckle, “but I’d like to think it will last for a long time. . . .
“We’ve just relaxed so much more. We’re just not so uptight. And I think that’s enabling some really, really good, straight-forward, simple songs to come through. I think that’s our strength really.”