Be Opened By The Wonderful by James – Album Review
By Victoria Holdsworth
The evolution of James over the decades has been remarkable to watch, and this new album demonstrates not only how they excel as musicians, but also as human beings.
Be Opened By The Wonderful is an anniversary album of sorts, but once the first note hits, you know you are listening to so much more.
This double disc set consists of their most acclaimed tracks and rarities which have been redefined alongside a 22-piece orchestra and an 8-piece choir, the result of which will audibly haunt you to the very last note, urging you to play it again with immediate effect.
A familiar melody strikes you from the offset as they open with ‘Sometimes’, from the ’93 album Laid. I felt my hairs stand on end for the duration of the track as Tim Booth’s voice, poignant as ever, matches his honest lyrics, painting thought-provoking scenes in your mind. The track is both ornate and simple, direct and intangible.
This James, although still holding their own and enjoying the fruits of their past labours, sound like they have put the indie moniker aside and put their hearts and souls into how these songs could have sounded in the first place. Would we have appreciated them sounding this way back then? Maybe not, but with a fan base that has grown with you, there is always the luxury of wisdom, change and hindsight. You listen to these revitalised tracks now with a completely fresh and different ear.
‘Love Make A Fool’ is one of the new tracks, and conceptualises their orchestral overtones with a completely different approach, kicking in with an electronic bareness on the surface, but as you listen, the layers keep rising to the surface, eventually dropping into some hypnotic beats, punctuating Booth’s vocals to tremendous effect.
‘We’re Gonna Miss You’ which featured on the ’99 album Millionaires, is broodingly delicious and still as catchy as hell all these years later.
One of James’s strongest songs from their back catalogue has just got even stronger. Tomorrow is stunning. The message of the song is as firm and as needed today as it was back when it was released; “Now your grip’s too strong/ You can’t catch love with a net or a gun/ Gotta keep faith that your path will change/ Gotta keep faith that your love will change”. Whilst this track is closer to its origins than most, it shows another level of musical maturity.
‘The Lake’, a b-side from the 1993 single ‘Laid’ features a stressed and purposeful snare beat that weaves throughout the entire track, pulling you back to a time of flares and fishing hats, but at a slower pace, calming you into a comfortable recognition of summers long gone and past, all wrapping around your life issues at the time of youth. A sly smile appeared on my face a few times listening to this, tapping into memories that I’m pleased to have made.
No album seems to be left unturned,. Whiplash offers up one of their most instantly recognisable tunes, ‘She’s A Star’. Here, the string work on is captivating and the simplicity is beautiful – again, it demonstartes how well Booth’s voice has held up over the years.
‘Lookaway’, released in 2010 on the album The Morning After has a neat ‘Always The Sun’ vibe; a perfect blend of vocals to some fuzzed out backing, fortifying a strong uplifting ending against some slick guitar and string work.
Their famous anthem ‘Sit Down’ is quirky as hell and a delight to listen to. I would love to hear this version sung somewhere cavernous to feel the vibration and emotion bounce around every square inch of space. Outstanding!
There is a subtle intricate rawness to ‘Alaskan Pipeline’ from the 2001 album Pleased To Meet You. Lyrically brutal, you would never guess the peaks and troughs of the vocals and orchestra as they transport you to a place of denial through a true tale of unrequited love.
‘Someone’s Got It In For Me’ kicks off the second disc, and is another offering from Millionaires, with a lulling arrangement against an ethereal sound, drawing you in, making you feel like you have just been baptised into the church of James all over again. A truly magnificent opener, which then leads into the classically tragic ‘Hey Ma’, which came from a result of their reunion in 2007.
‘Hello’ again highlights those stark contrasts between the vocal and arrangements. ‘Beautiful Beaches’ has been reworked, taken the album All the Colours of You from 2021. it remains a brilliant anthem. Then the listener is quickly dragged back to 1986 by the scruff of a harmonious, barbershop kinda folk mash-up, streaked with soul highlights in an eye popping rendition of ‘Why So Close’.
‘Medieval’ is as lyrically unforgiving as ever, but ‘Hymn From A Village’ is one of the real showstoppers on this side. It’s fun, punchy, upbeat and relentless.
‘Say Something’ from Laid is gentle as pizzicato strings pluck through a weaving piano line as Booth’s emotive voice pleads through the chorus to: “Say something/say something/anything/
I’ve shown you everything”.
‘Moving On’ is touchingly warmed by an ensemble of woodwind instruments which, dare I say it, gives it the feel of a Disney soundtrack. Don’t be alarmed, its richness will wrap itself around you, just as Booth’s voice does. The short bursts of cheeky crescendos are spellbinding.
James have really excelled themselves, orchestrating a true time capsule of thought-provoking and memory-laden songs. One of the greatest bands of a generation keep getting better, and Be Opened By The Wonderful is the proof.