James - Hey Ma (Album of the Year) Review

by Anthony Kuzminski

Life's obstacles find a way of temporarily sidetracking and (at times) debilitating us. One of the reasons I have always found the world of the arts so fascinating is that they can turn our thoughts inward and help give us perspective on our own life. Recently rock music, for one reason or another, is not providing the remedy I often seek from it. Over the last few years, a simple rock anthem doesn't enlighten me the way it once did. However, when an artist or album comes around and delves deep into the psyche of the human soul, I become enthralled. For the last half decade, while I've enjoyed hundreds of albums, I haven't felt many to mine new territory or provide me with a matchless listening experience. However, in the last few months I've been entranced by music chock full of meaning. Artists who are digging deep into complicated and thorny subjects; Metallica's Death Magnetic, Michael Franti's All Rebel Rockers and John Mellencamp's Life, Love, Death & Freedom have all overwhelmed with me with insightful lyrics, stellar production and topical issues. These albums have provided listening experiences that I believe are the best of not just this year but this decade. However, there has been one album I have returned to time and time again recently as it delicately balances the beauty and bleakness that life has to offer; Hey Ma from the Manchester band James.

James is best known in America for the hit single, "Laid" which actually became a bigger hit for the band over time than it was in 1993 and 1994. Now a modern rock staple for bar juke boxes, the song was only modestly known…at first. The album Laid peaked at #68 and the single only climbed to #61 on the Billboard charts, but somehow the album eventually moved 600,000 copies providing a cult hit for the band that has only grown with time. In America, post Laid, James has become nothing more than a trivia question unfortunately. What's so disheartening about this is that their follow-ups Whiplash, Millionaires and the Best of James all made major waves overseas. The Best Of release in March of 1998, became the album to knock the Titanic soundtrack from the top of the UK charts and is probably one of my desert island discs. It's a perfect collage of James as it wonderfully melds their versatile musical career. Now what makes Hey Ma such an anomaly is that it in itself could be considered a separate Best of James, that is how prevailing and potent these songs are. One thing most American's are incorrect about is that Laid is the band's best album. While it has some of their most provoking songs on it ("Sometimes", "Laid", "Out To Get You"), it's nowhere near their creative apex. Seven and Millionaires are far superior offerings, however I find all of the aforementioned bowing down to Hey Ma. It's almost unheard of for a group to reunite after an extended hiatus to create a work of art on par with their best offerings, but James has gone one step further by creating a biting, boiling and blissful collection of songs that align like the stars in the sky.

Late last year, after a reunion tour, the band hunkered down at Warsy Chateau in northern France and walloped their way through 120 new compositions with producer Lee "Muddy" Baker, who picks up where Brian Eno left off without the slightest hesitation and a modern touch. Baker created separate rooms for the band members to jam and feed ideas to him in the main studio room. Eight specific jams, created during one five-hour jam session, largely became the songs found on Hey Ma. The return of guitarist Larry Gott (who left the band in 1995) has further assisted the band finding their way home and to an atmosphere where they wouldn't just return to former glories, but improve on them. When the seven members begin to jam they find themselves in a magical state blissfully unaware of their surroundings. Their best songs have always evolved from extended jams and Booth's metaphysical lyrics, which fall somewhere between inexplicable of Michael Stipe and the heartfelt tenderness of Bono. As the band works out the music, Booth comes up with distinguishable yet at times undecipherable lyrics that are like a two headed monster. Some of the lyrics are ferocious and touch lightning rod topics on the most eclectic James album since Seven, which coincidently was the last time the Hey Ma lineup of James recorded together.

When groups break up and spend time apart eventually to regroup, they may have put certain feelings aside, but their rarely recapture the magic and essence that made them a group in the first place. What makes the return of James so triumphant is the band's ability to bring the strongest line-up back together which created Seven. James has made an album that lies somewhere between mainstream programming and indie fanaticism. They haven't just made a great reunion record; they've made the best album of their career. Each listen continues to reveal itself to me with nuances I had not picked up on previously. Even with a full three-month of major releases ahead of us, I find it hard to believe that any of them will be as poignant, pensive and devastating relevant and revealing as Hey Ma. With each intoxicating listen, I'm drawn into the reverberating music, the ebullient melodies and the world weary lyrics.

The depth of the subjects found on Hey Ma prove to be socially provocative; war ("Hey Ma" & "72"), awakening ("Bubbles" "Waterfall" and "I Wanna Go Home") and ultimately life and love ("Oh My Heart" and "Upside"). For the first time in a while, I feel an artist has created a complete album that speaks to me in the here and now while simultaneously enrapturing my ear drums with ambient pop and soulful sounds. Opening the album is a hymn that flashes of life before your eyes; "Bubbles". In classic James fashion, "Bubbles" slowly builds until they shed their cocoon, revealing their true colors. As the band begins to fly away, Booth's voice soars on the chorus where he proclaims "I'm alive". As this harrowing chorus descends upon the listener, we enter a spiritual space that encompasses all eleven tracks. The visceral anti-war lyrics of "Hey Ma" may be too vivid for some, but ultimately has a building progression and ferocious chorus ("Hey ma the boy's in body bags, Coming home in pieces"). More than anything, it's an anthem of awakening providing a jolt to your thoughts forcing you to take hold of the state of our world. Neil Young should take note as this one lyric is more biting than anything on his anti-war record Living With War (an album I admire greatly).

For every solemn song, there's another for you to close your eyes and be taken away into a dreamy withdrawal. "Boom Boom" has a discernible melody that will break your heart as soon as it begins, but ultimately the lyrics of absolution and survival will redeem you. Then there's the high-speed getaway chorus of "Oh My Heart"; an aching and driving life force of a song where the band is as forceful and unrelenting as the lyrics ("Adore this life, There is no guarantee, Could end by tomorrow"). "Upside" features an agonizing dichotomy of life where when you find love, you're still yearning for their daily touch and affection. The world separates us out of the necessity of survival and work ("Upside: love you, Downside: miss you, I'm here you are there"). Booth's metaphysical lyrics paired with wailing crescendo's take this one over the top. The lyrics of Hey Ma are filled with a rich immediacy that distinguish their strongest work. However, just as some of these topics may become too overwhelming for us to bear, there's refuge in the solemn "Waterfall" which finds the narrator at peace away from the physical comforts that have come to run his life. "Whiteboy" the album's catchiest song is the apogee of Brit-pop with its dashing lyrical wordplay as the emotions, horns and percussion build to a combustive finish. "Of Monsters and Heroes and Men" features a faint horn that send chills down your spine on a tongue twisting poem of survival that is ultimately a paean as the band ever so ingeniously embellishes the haunted atmosphere of the track. The brief and fleeting lyrics of "72" questions the universe as a whole as the band finds itself in a driving interlock of guitars and drums finding an emotional vulnerability through the sheer muscle tone of their sound. On the album's final track, "I Wanna Go Home", James comes full circle. Beginning in a somber and hushed tone, it erects into a wailing and triumphant epic that shows that the Manchester boys may have disbanded in late 2001, but have clearly found their way home on an anthem of self-reflection.

It's almost as if the last decade of woes, trials and tribulations of the world can be summed up in the eleven songs that encompass Hey Ma providing the listener with divine and illuminating insight. Not since U2 released All That You Can't Leave Behind has there been a collection of potent and powerful hymns as stalwart as Hey Ma. U2 is not releasing an album in 2008 and this is the best substitute you will find. Even if the Irish lads had released an album, it would be tough for them to match Hey Ma. The allusive lyrics of Hey Ma catch us in the crossfire of life forcing us to ponder our lot in life. James let their primordial instincts take over and let the incandescent music flow through them instead of being forced. James provides an admission of emotional vulnerability and has proven to be raw and dangerously alive. The lofty topics of Hey Ma are drowned in pop sensibilities that would invigorate any FM dial. The first time I heard this record, (much like Metallica's Death Magnetic) I didn't pay much attention to the prosaic and protesting lyrics, but this is where the heart of the album lies. No topic goes unturned; God, war, self-loathing, desperation, dislocation, separation, temptation and most importantly revelation are all here. James sound like a band with an insatiable hunger willing to do anything to make their mark. Their lack of innocence gives way to experience, knowledge and wisdom. James hasn't just mined a victorious reunion album with Hey Ma they've created the best album of 2008.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.

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