To all American James fans: the band did not forget about you this year after all.
Earlier this year I had the fortunate opportunity to review the James EP The Night Before. It was a pretty good little EP, but it did not feel like one of James' greatest achievements. A sequel EP was promised, appropriately named The Morning After, and how the two would complement one another was anyone's guess. In the back of my mind I guess I knew that a final decision shouldn't be made until all of the songs were present and accounted for. Context, we tend to forget, can be a strong variable for our enjoyment. Sometimes music sounds better when it's cranked up loud. Food can taste better when you are eating it with a friend. Watching a comedy with a room full of laughing people can make the whole experience funnier. In a similar way, The Night Before sounds better now that The Morning After has arrived. Nothing's really changed, just eight songs now filling in the rest of the puzzle.
These two EPs, which were released separately in the United Kingdom, have been packaged together stateside and compositely named The Morning After The Night Before. Even though it would have been easy to consolidate these two mini-albums to one CD, it's presented as a double album meant to be digested in halves. This is somewhat refreshing since our current era of pop-rock is afraid to give people things in large quantities. Ten to 12 tracks, 40 to 45 minutes, is the norm and it has become kind of boring for me. Even if The Morning After The Night Before is unnecessarily sold as two pieces of plastic instead of one, I still relish in James' generosity.
The music inside works within the parameters that the band set up in the past, where the songs' choruses are as explosive as they are optimistic and ornamentation is a necessary part of James' compositional architecture. What's interesting about The Morning After The Night Before is how the same formula for 15 songs gives noticeably different results depending on which side of the fence the songs fall. The Night Before, strangely enough, is definitely the brighter of the two albums. Tim Booth lets us know that "it's hot inside the chrysalis," and judging from the band's drive that uses all four beats of a bar to push their song forward, you don't doubt him. "Dr. Hellier" is possibly the most futuristic the band has ever sounded. James has always been a band captured in the moment, from their Smiths pastiches of the early '80s to the baggy beats of the '90s that, for better or worse, linked them to the music scene of their hometown, Manchester. Yet the wordless chanting of "Dr. Hellier" is truly a heat-seeker of a hook, making past songs like "Laid" sound like another band entirely. "Hero" is a mile-high reminder to love your brother. "Crazy" is equally joyful: "I'm not crazy / I'm just laughing at myself." Even the guys at NME should withhold the snarky cynicism.
If The Night Before is stadium-ready, The Morning After is the more catatonic side of the package. "Dust Motes" is austere and dry, sucking out all of the studio reverb. The lyric, "there's a vulture at the end of my bed / it's 5:00 am, it thinks I'm dead" is lonely enough, but pairing it with quiet piano chords is one hell of a way to set up the refrain "I forgive you," which sounds like a stripped-down rendition of James' 1992 single "Sound". The leadoff track "Got the Shakes" is also a devastatingly pretty stumbling block. Guitarist Larry Gott gets out his slide to play some unsettling blues licks as Tim Booth gives voice to a violent drunk who wakes up one morning not remembering that he beat his wife. Since this is James, the gloom is kept to a healthy minimum. Pop nuggets like "Make For This City" and "Lookaway," while still listenable, have just the slightest amount of shading to keep them away from the Night EP. Easy-going "Tell Her I Said So" combines a subtle, danceable backbone, a calm vocal delivery from Booth, and a breezy melody, although I really wish the kids' chorus fad spawned by "Another Brick in the Wall" would fall by the wayside already. It's a minor complaint in light of how "Rabbit Hole" is laced together with Gott's perfectly placed e-bow.
So although The Morning After The Night Before doesn't exactly throw dynamite at musical barriers, it does go a distance in casting 21st century James in a pretty diverse light. The Morning After is somber and restrained without being dreadfully melancholy. The Night Before is big pop with a bright sheen, but its drama holds up surprisingly well over repeated listens. Tim Booth doesn't sing louder or more forcefully than necessary, and longtime band mates Jim Glennie, Larry Gott, David Baynton-Power, and Andy Diagram recognize when to step away from their canvas. When 15 songs spanning one hour are served up without the slightest hint of overcooking, it is the mark of a great band. If the 2008 reunion album Hey Ma was James' way of announcing "we're back," The Morning After The Night Before is their way of reminding us "we're still better than you ever thought." Booth and his friends are probably too humble to admit that, but if I were them, I would totally flaunt it.