YOU’D BETTER SIT DOWN. WE HAVE SOME NEWS. A RECENTLY RELEASED – THOUGH MUCH DELAYED – HEAVYWEIGHT AND CHEERFULLY PACKAGED BOX SET FROM MANCHESTER’S JAMES THREATENS TO CONTAIN THEIR COMPLETE DISCOGRAPHY. DISAPPOINTINGLY, IT DOESN’T.
THE GATHERING SOUND could be exhausting, in the best possible way. It should, at the least, be exhaustive.
Unbelievably only a fairly subjective – and small – handful of obscurities actually makes it all the way along the path to this point when a box-up exercise of this magnitude (trans. cost) is, potentially, the opportunity to fill in every single one of the gaps: to gather up all of the b-sides, remixes, various artists compilation contributions and assorted other important, hard-to-find or previously unreleased rarities that litter the band’s thirty year trail.
The possible additional funding required for amassing this mountain of extra material – we quickly scanned the band’s discography and checked off around 130 ‘peripheral’ tracks – and pressing up the countless extra CDs required can’t be taken seriously as a consideration, because THE GATHERING SOUND contains a niftily pre-loaded (and nicely bespoke J-logo) USB stick.
On this device is the majority of the band’s back catalogue of albums (though not quite all of it as there is no – ho ho – b-side collection ULTRA). Is it not reasonable to suggest, then, that this USB could also readily contain a full complement of oddities and outcasts, for no actual extra physical production cost? For a band of this stature – easily classed as a group who demand full context, whose b-sides are not actually just b-sides – the fact that it doesn’t feels slack, somehow sadly shoddy with neglect.
In a set like this a USB stick is quite a neat idea. But, here, the logo gimmick doesn’t detract from it being fairly pointless for anyone other than the unlikely casual purchaser – and those who actually have enough interest in a deluxe James package to throw the requisite hundred-or-so quid at Universal will undoubtedly be committed enough to have collected these easily available albums on CD already. For their coin they probably deserve more than a cute data carrier which, ultimately, becomes nothing more than a plastic J.
In utter fairness, it doesn’t appear to have ever been stated that THE GATHERING SOUND was going to be a complete collection of James’ recordings. And yet… why flirt with the suggested potential of that USB stick, or moniker the set THE GATHERING SOUND at all, a name which – when emblazoned across the front of a large box – implies that the contents are all-encompassing, fully encyclopaedic, quite possibly the ‘Complete Works’?
If a record company is going to scoop into three decades worth of archives and tool up an expensive fan-oriented object like this, why not actually thoroughly clean out those archives and give the hardcore fans the chance to gorge on their feast of a lifetime. And maybe even taste the dust, too? Otherwise, yes, it’s pretty. And, yes, it’s here. But… What For?
These – admittedly major – gripes aside, essentially THE GATHERING SOUND is a beautiful repackaging (it really is reassuringly hefty and handsome to handle, that flower motif blooming everywhere) of James’ last couple of outings, with ‘some other stuff’ thrown in as added incentive.
Amongst the usual box set fare (badges, prints, posters, a hardback case/book and the like) we get: one CD fusing those conjoined albums THE MORNING AFTER… and … THE NIGHT BEFORE, a couple of rare songs on vinyl, a CD each of live and rare tracks, plus a DVD of the band’s videos. And that USB J.
The stick also carries those videos, in handy iPod format, plus an interactive ‘timeline’ of the band’s career, containing video footage alongside photos and interesting publicity material, and which runs right through from exciting early 1980s gigs at, say, the Hacienda to stadium-sized SIT DOWN era semi-domination, and on to early 21st-century split and 2007 reunion.
In addition, there is that impressive collection of albums: STUTTER, STRIP-MINE, GOLD MOTHER, SEVEN, LAID, the Brian Eno collaboration WAH WAH, WHIPLASH, MILLIONAIRES, PLEASED TO MEET YOU, HEY MA, THE NIGHT BEFORE and THE MORNING AFTER, plus four orphan songs which only appeared on the band’s two Best Of compilations.
STUTTER reveals a fresh band moving forward but not quite sure of what it is – though getting extremely close to the something most will eventually recognise. STRIP-MINE, GOLD MOTHER and SEVEN (containing the mesmerising SOUND) detail a confident band just about hitting a perfect ten. Later albums are later albums, more sporadically entertaining.
The CD containing live tracks, recorded at a number of gigs between an early show in 1982 and one from the comeback trail of 2008, is as transcendant as anyone who has seen James perform would expect it to be, regularly peaking at notable moments of euphoria.
The rare studio cuts which make it onto disc in this box are frequently of huge archaeological interest. JUST HIPPER is an even more preposterously frantic version of JUST HIP from STUTTER, while digging further back is WILLOW, one of the band’s earliest demos. JAM 1 excavates a rehearsal and only reveals that a band can be entirely human after all, even around the time of its superstar peak. Order is quickly restored by IT’S A FINE LINE which, in retrospect, sounds like it must be one of the searching and atmospheric recordings that detonated the old Eno Bomb – the exercise in experimentation WAH WAH followed not long after. Recent outtake ALL MY LETTERS is endearingly self-knowing: “James in the Green Room with Will Smith and Jay-Z… who do we pretend we used to be?” …
By anyone’s standards, this box contains a lot of material. And some of that material is, by anyone’s standards, truly excellent. If only there had been that more considered – generous – bundling of the seldom heard or completely unknown, then THE GATHERING SOUND might not leave you with the impression that the curators have provided only one previously undiscovered branch of some exciting tree to climb, plus little more than pretty flowers around it and a USB stick for fans to beat them with.