Archive for the ‘James solo material’ Category

I hear you’ve got something to say

The world’s first sampling of solo James. Those who were expecting more of Manics melancholia, with what James being the lead songwriter, were in for a little surprise when the perky handclaps and bright keyboards kicked in. And then there’s the sha-la-la-las of the middle eight…

For me, The Great Western is one of those albums where I rarely listen to it but whenever I decide to it’s always a fresh surprise as to how great the songs sound after all. That’s No Way to Tell a Lie is a prime example of that. That guitar intro is always a bit of a “oh here we go again, familiar tune” moment but the rest of the song always ends up surprising me: age has done nothing but improve it and it sounds fresher nowadays than it ever did. It’s pretty much a perfect example of how to pull off an upbeat guitar pop song and it’s infectiously joyous and bright: the pristine production is nothing but perfectly fitting and really brings out the nuances of those shiny keyboards and powerful drums in the chorus, James’ guitar soars between the verses and those ever-wonderful hand-claps. It’s a proper pop tune, in all the best ways you can mean it.

Although it is one of those songs where the perkiness hides some seriousness as the lyrics are a bit of a stab against organised religion. James attacking the big things right from the start.

If the song was unexpectedly upbeat, the video is a real hoot. Taking inspiration from a Japanese gangster film, James double-stars as the leader of a crime gang as well as his poor victim who gets to take several dips in the ocean while being interrogated. James’ tongue-in-cheek acting, the random Japanese subtitles that pop up from time to time and the wonderful sight of a gang of hardened, tough criminals emotionlessly singing sha-la-las is something to marvel. More of this in the Manics catalogue please!

Guy Massey, the album’s mixer and eventual Manics tour guitarist, did his own mix of the song that was released through a rare promo. It’s faithful to the original version but emphasises the role of the keyboards in the song, layering them all over the song from the very beginning and adding several new parts. It sounds a bit odd to someone’s who loves the original as much as I do but it’s definitely a worthwhile version that I could easily see someone preferring.


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But you gave us more than we need my friend

Back when The Great Western first appeared, An English Gentleman was one of my instant favourites. When it was announced as the second single, I was over the moon because I thought it was one of the best choices to represent the album. When James performing acoustic versions of it in radio sessions became so frequent that it became a running joke in the fandom, I didn’t care because I was just happy the song was getting so much exposure.

And frankly, it’s still impossible to deny its charms. From the instrumentation to the production, the backing vocals of the chorus to the drum-driven stagger of the verses, it’s still a very good song. But as obvious favourites sometimes do, its big hooks that grabbed from the very first listen have now began to loosen up with age. It continues to be one of the most quintessential James solo songs in regards to its style and sound because it really does nutshell The Great Western in so many ways lyrically and musically, but it doesn’t have the same overall punch anymore. There’s nothing bad I can say about it, but at the same time all its great parts are presented in a slightly better way somewhere else on the album. With all that said however, as stated it is still a really good song – and you can’t help but feel those positive shivers in your back whenever the bridge switches to the chorus.

It also starts The Great Western’s lyrical themes of looking back into the past. The English Gentleman in question is Philip Hall, Manics’ old publicist who saw something special in the four young, wild and a bit dodgy lads and gave them a chance when he began to support their musical adventures and eventually came to be a close friend of the band until he passed away in the mid-nineties.

The song’s video where James portrays a film director shooting the puppy love between a young couple gains some most likely very unintentional comedic value from the fact that its scenes end up making James seem like a stalking peeping tom. An association that isn’t really helped with the ending where he mysteriously disappears just as one of the couple glances at him.

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I’m swallowing flies and thick lead petrol

Kendon Hill is a steep hill in Wales, James’ birth country¬† and, as pointed out by dai in the comments, running up the hill was a frequent part of the training routine used by the boxers in the nearby boxing club. Which ties to Joe Calzaghe, namechecked in the lyrics, who is a Welsh boxer. Nothing of any interest seemed to have happened to him around 2006, the single’s release year: he retired in 2009 and before that had a successful career with a healthy amount of ups and downs, very standard to any regular sportsman. Reading the lyrics literally, Victory and Defeat seems like a song about jogging to the top of Kendon Hill, thinking one’s never going to make it to the top but finally succeeding in it after a long, exhausting ‘battle’ against the uphill path. Whether it’s in character, James comparing himself to one of the boxers in a metaphor sort of way or simply reliving some old memories is up in the air.

That’s about the most interesting thing in the song though. It’s a rocker that wouldn’t have gone amiss as a b-side on a Manics single, most of the sheen of its surrounding era taken away and relying more on the traditional rock trio of instruments. The lead guitar sound on the path that leads to the chorus is quite lovely and suffice to say, the chorus itself does lodge itself into one’s head in a pleasing way should you let it do so. The production’s a bit shoddy but I can’t say if it’s present on the original track or if it’s just the vinyl rip I have (thanks very much, vinyl only b-sides).

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The other JDB song from Patty Jones’ play soundtrack and thanks to its instrumental nature it’s far more soundtrack-like than Shut the Door. It’s easy to imagine what sort of scene this would soundtrack: after a tense, dramatic moment the lights dimmen out and we see one of the main characters do something that will forever change the course of his life. The dramatic climax. Of course, I’ve never seen the play so I can’t know for sure but I’ve heard so many songs like these used in scenes like those that I’d say it’s fairly likely.

Structurally, Stargazer is a short two-minute buildup. Starts with quick acoustic picking, an atmospheric electric guitar soon steps up to accompany it with a very JDB-like guitar riff, before the bass and finally the drums kick for a steady rhythm line that is essentially a buildup that keeps on intensifying before it quietly fizzles out with no climax.

Can’t blame it for not being pleasant enough but Stargazer probably is the most throwaway track of James’ solo catalogue. But to its defense, it never was meant to really stand alone anyway.

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Some newspaper, petrol and broken dreams are all that stands between you and me

It’s fairly common to title songs “x Blues” because there’s something old-fashionedly romantic in titling a song like that, even when the actual music has nothing to do with the ol’ blues. Silver Birch Bonfire Blues then, in a surprise twist, is a proper blues tune. Rugged, raw and entirely built of the traditional blues chugga-chugga.

You can sort of get the sense that by the time it came to recording the b-sides for his second solo single, James had already began to thirst to do something a bit different to the pop sensibilities of the album. Silver Birch Bonfire Blues could be an outtake from the Manics catalogue and is far more guitar-driven than most of the other tracks during the Great Western era. The production’s simple and modest and frankly, it fits the song perfectly. The fire burning in it doesn’t need fancy polishing.

My love for James’ guitaring once again gets some ground to prove itself before the final chorus, with the surprise solo placed in the song instead of the second half of the second verse. It may not brag much with technical skills but it sounds great.

Whether it’s because it’s such a stylistic stand-out from the rest of the era or because of it’s rather good (yet obvious b-side) quality, Silver Birch Bonfire Blues is a a minor standout nonetheless.

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Shut the Door

Keep everything out of sight

In 2008 Patrick Jones, ie Nicky Wire’s poet/playwright brother, released the play Revelation which is about domestic abuse from a male victim’s point of view. He had also chosen (at least) three songs to soundtrack the play, two of which came from his handy musician connection James.

Shut the Door is a sub-standard James solo acoustic moment and from its understated and rather monotonous nature it’s pretty clear to hear it’s meant to soundtrack something. It also suffers from that same thing as it’s never really particularly interesting musically; goes into the head from one ear and out of the other in an instant. What raises it a bit higher in intrigue scales is the emotionless yet highly rhythmic vocal melody that bobs along with the guitar picking in an almost metronomic way, giving the song a very distinguishably tense, edged-out mood. Which unfortunately isn’t enough to save it from being fairly forgettable.

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It breaks my heart to see I’ve looked but never found

Good intro on this one. It’s dead simple and nothing particularly special I spose, just some infrequent guitar melodies, a steadily humming bass and eventually a simple drum pattern but there’s something peculiarly nice in it. It has a sort of classic track sound to it, instantly recognisable like the one of a hit single. Familiar in a very lovely way.

Lost Again itself doesn’t really reveal itself to be that sort of a classic track that the intro would signal but it’s a perfectly pleasant little rocker nonetheless. Has a nice energy to it and all. A bit of a nonentity and slightly forgettable but it’s not surprising to have your foot tap along the rhythm while it goes and such. James’ quick “no intervention!” in the chorus is the only truly memorable part outside the intro.

It pains me to be so nondescript about a song but it’s a very nondescript song. Bog standard enjoyable rocker.

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