Brian Eno is MORE DARK THAN SHARK
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The Wire SEPTEMBER 1994 - by Susan Masters

JAMES: WAH WAH

James have always been a bargain bin pop group. Their early singles like Hymn From A Village promised a budget-priced Smiths, paring the guitar meat down to some meagre, tribalist bones. More recently, singles like Sit Down have drawn them a far larger audience as the poor man's Simple Minds. Wah Wah, however, breaks with this tradition.

Produced by Brian Eno, it's a loose-knit conglomerate of beginnings and endings, the outcome of impromptu jams around the time of their last LP, Laid. Various fragments echo U2 (the fuzzy, industrialised funk of Jam J, for instance), but to call this Zooropa-lite would be a gross exaggeration.

Equally limited is the influence of Eno as Ambient experimentalist. Aside from Low Clouds (seventeen seconds of scrunched cotton wool, if my ears aren't mistaken), the gentler interludes introduce tracks like Basic Brian, a meteor shower of glassy harmonics, and Hammer Strings, an androgynously celestial lullaby. Other tracks merely reveal James's awe regarding new technology - at times, Filter Frenzy or Reverb Revelations would seem far more apposite titles for this release.

Echoing recent releases from the style-conscious vanguard of alternative pop, Wah Wah straddles a postmodern line linking old to new -the only snag being that their old is a cliche and their new is stolen property. Offering a theme park portrayal of 'how life used to be', tracks like Sayonara and Rhythmic Dreams blend nursery rhyme vocals with the strains of pseudo-folk. Thriving on our modern yearning for a common sense of community, they nurture beliefs in a shared English heritage. But unlike other recent releases - Saint Etienne's Tiger Bay or Blur's Parklife - which also celebrate a multi-faceted present, James's occasional '90s flickers sound more a result of the group poring over their pop crammers rather than any meaningful engagement with contemporary scenes. The upshot: a collection riddled with borrowed ideas that only comes to life when it kicks out the pretension and rocks.

Like the soundtrack to a floodlit thriller, Mad Maria layers a vagrant's growl over a motorised drone. Building A Fire spins a Catherine wheel of funereal brooding and Honest Joe has a pterodactyl's vocal harry a ragged, bass-heavy beat. James succeed as a wholesome guitar band, and it's this idea that remains with you, far more than the echo-crazed weirdness or lyrical obliqueness.


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