James: Justhipper: The Complete Sire and Blanco Y Negro Recordings 1986-1988 (Cherry Red)

Justhipper: The Complete Sire and Blanco Y Negro Recordings 1986-1988
Cherry Red

The musical path of Manchester-based James has always been an interesting one, with hiatuses coming right at the point when things were starting to happen for them, which upon return brings them massive, worldwide successes, only to meet new fortunes with more hiatuses. Yet maybe it isn’t so weird, because they’re a well-loved band three decades on, and they’ve retained a reputation for being an amazing live band. Justhipper: The Complete Sire and Blanco Y Negro Recordings 1986-1988 compile their complete output for their short-lived but fruitful era with the American and British labels.

Their signing came on the heels of the band’s first hiatus. Having formed in 1982, the band quickly garnered a reputation for obtuse lyrics and the amazing vocals of frontman Tim Booth, and soon signed to Factory Records. They released two singles, but quickly grew unhappy with the label—they felt the label couldn’t do anything for them to make them grow, and the label, who sensed that the band was on the cusp of a breakthrough, seemingly sensed that the label’s humble, hardscrabble budgets meant they couldn’t properly give them what they wanted. (Interestingly enough, for their Factory releases, the band purposefully gave the label what they felt were their worst songs, because they felt if those songs did well, then the songs they deem good must be amazing.)

Stutter, released in 1986, was a very, very idiosyncratic record. Beginning with the lines, “An earwig crawled into my ear, made a meal of the wax and hair, phone friends had an insect party, but all I could hear was the bass drum drum,” with Booth and company launching full-fury into their schizophrenic, frenetic acoustic-based melody. Thirty-one years later, it still thrills. The rest of the record follows suit, with quirky, stripped-down songs that were sing-along worthy and catchy as hell, yet the tenderness of “Black Hole” and “Really Hard” show that the band wasn’t all weird obliqueness. Stutter was a unique record, and showed the band was one with very few peers, outside of the early records of XTC and the first Throwing Muses records.

But weirdness doesn’t sell, and Stutter didn’t. For Strip-Mine, their second album—and American debut—the band worked with Hugh Jones, and they fleshed out their sound with a fuller, less taut production that was much warmer and inviting. It was a good decision, too; their songs are suddenly more palpable, and though Booth’s singing might have been more refined, it lost none of its power. Singles “What For” and “Ya Ho” showed the band’s commercial sensibilities, and were modest Alternative Rock hits in the United States, with a friendly sound not unlike R.E.M. or The Waterboys. The folk-rock of “Medieval” and “Fairground” sounded like something from centuries before, while the upbeat “Vulture” and “Are You Ready” said this was a band with a great future.

Unfortunately, James was all but dead. The album had been recorded in early 1987, with the band splitting up shortly after the recording was finished. But the label was determined to release the album and rid themselves of the band, eventually releasing it in September 1988, as a final washing-of-hands. One can’t blame the label, though, for dropping them; what’s the point of signing a band that hasn’t realized its full potential and breaks up on a regular basis?

Yet that’s the amazing story about James. Label-free, the band would self-release a live album that would, shockingly, go to number 2 on the UK Indie charts, prompting the label Fontana to sign them, and upon release of their third album, Gold Mother, they became one of the biggest British bands of the era. Justhipper shows that their former labels weren’t wrong in thinking that they had greatness on their hands—it just wasn’t destined to work out. A shame for them, as this era—and especially Strip-Mine—contains some of James’ finest work. This collection is a thrilling and essential listen for those who love the band, and a great set for those who want to understand how their reputation was built.


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