In the first installment of our new Editor's Choice series, in which a member of our editorial team selects their favourite release of the last month, Music Editor Alexia Kirov reviews James' four-track EP Better Than That
Ahead of August's release of their 15th studio album, Living In Extraordinary Times, last month, Manchester stalwarts James put out a four-track EP, Better Than That. Featuring two tracks from the forthcoming album and two from its recording sessions that didn’t quite make the cut, this EP is James’ first new release since 2016’s Girl at the End of the World did chart battle with Adele and peaked at number two.
Title track ‘Better Than That’ opens the EP and was the first of the four songs to be unveiled. It's an important track for a number of reasons; following the departure of guitarist Larry Gott, it's the first indicator of what post-reformation James sound like with guitarist and cellist, Adrian Oxaal, back in the band (he was part of the 1997-2001 line-up).
It's also the first indicator of what Charlie Andrew’s production means for James’ sound. Luckily, it's a welcome addition. Here, and across the EP, Andrew has captured the raw vivacity that James have live which sometimes felt a little lost in the very polished production of the previous two albums. While its titular track might not be the EP’s most immediate, ‘Better Than That’ is a gallant, yet uncluttered opener. It starts with a powerful bassline and snappy drums – but even when Andy Diagram’s trumpet ushers in the chorus, there’s still space for each individual instrument – nothing gets lost in the mix.
But it’s on next song, ‘Busted’, where James really come into their own. A meditation on a troubled relationship, the song was debuted live on last summer’s festival circuit. Yet, despite being the standout track on Better Than That, ‘Busted’ joins the likes of ‘Slow Right Down’, ‘America’ and ‘I Defeat’ - to name but a few - in a great tradition of brilliant James songs that never made it on to an album. This can only bode well for what we’re yet to hear on Living In Extraordinary Times, but for now, it has to be said that ‘Busted’ is at least one of the band’s best post-reformation tracks. It doesn’t have the traditional verse/chorus/verse structure: rather, it grows and swells from one section to the next. At first, Mark Hunter's spectral, church-like keys create an almost funereal atmosphere.
But as 'Busted' reaches its climax, it does that which is the hallmark of so many of James' best tracks (see 2009's 'Not So Strong' or 2014's 'All I'm Saying' for more recent examples). Lyrics of deep introspection are offset by a shift into a far more triumphant, even celebratory mood in the music itself that lets the listener know that there is hope. In short, 'Busted' is the sort of song that reminds you of just why James are your favourite band.
James probably aren't the first band that spring to mind for most people when they think of protest songs. But from criticising Thatcher in 1988 b-side ‘Promised Land’ to dealing with the consequences of war in 2008’s in ‘Hey Ma’, Booth’s lyrics have never shied away from the political. This EP proves no exception with tenacious third song, ‘Hank’.
Its state-of-the-nation lyrics (well, for Booth, at least, who lives in the Californian Topanga Canyon), condemn the current American political climate, aptly declaring “His [Trump’s, presumably] rapture’s our decline”. The layers and layers of hammering drums are defiant and compelling; it is almost as if they are an attempt to trounce out the “white fascists in the white house”. As ‘Hank’ has also made the track-list for Living In Extraordinary Times, 2018 might just be the year that James start appearing in lists of 'best ever' protest songs after all.
Final track, ‘Broken By The Hurt’, sees the band at their most vulnerable and understated on Better Than That. It’s a far cry from the clarion punch of ‘Hank’ which precedes it, but you might find that it's the gentle piano riff which runs throughout that sticks in your head the longest.
Although instrumentally, there’s no break into triumph as there is in ‘Busted’, there is movement towards hope in the lyrics. While they do begin bleakly, mentioning “Suicide or cancer / Loss of child / Betrayal, deceit”, later, there is reassurance, too, that “We all die / More Than Once / In This life”. It's not rose-coloured reassurance that life will be pain-free - but rather, that some pain is an inescapable part of the human experience for everyone - but as it is for everyone, the listener is not alone.
Featured image: BMG / James
Have you heard Better Than That yet? James release Living in Extraordinary Times on August 3rd.
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