Be Opened By The Wonderful
(Nothing But Love Music)
It’s forty years since the twitchy brilliance of James’ debut EP ('Jimone') and almost as long since ‘Hymn From a Village’ set out their breathless, smart and literate stall (‘Oh go and read a book, it’s so much more worthwhile…’). More, much more would follow.
Throughout the last four decades, there has been some wondrous music and lyrics, and, along the way, a few unintentional zeitgeist-grabbing moments. Some of this should be cherished forever and there are singles, albums, and years that are probably best forgotten. James have that perverse ability to catch you completely off guard, to floor you, and to do so usually when you least expect it. Which is why an anniversary album of orchestrated versions of twenty of their finest songs is such a huge joyous surprise.
We all know that bringing in an orchestra to help you revisit your back catalogue is a trick that only the most artistically moribund tend to indulge in. It's comfortable, it's respectable and it's very, very un-rock and roll. But James have gone about the process in such a thoughtful way, showing actual care for the music, the lyrics and those who are going to listen to it. As a background detail, the band handed over song choices to composer, conductor and fellow Mancunian Joe Duddell. The imaginative new arrangements were handed over to the excellent ORCA 22 Orchestra led by Andra Vornici and the Manchester Inspirational Voices Choir, directed by Wayne Ellington - each contribution adding a fabulous new dimension to the music.
From the start, from the gradual build and unfolding drama of the recreated ‘Sometimes’ you realise that James have treated these works with such respect, (and the moment at 3.50 when the choir make their glorious entrance is just so stirring, it will lift you). The glory of 'Be Opened to the Wonderful' is that it is most definitely not a 'greatest hits revisited' collection. As well as a selection of the bands' more familiar numbers, there are obscurities such as a new rendition of ‘The Lake’ (the flipside of ‘Laid’) as well as overlooked or long forgotten album tracks including ‘Alaskan Pipeline’, ‘Moving On’ and a delightful acapella with choir take on ‘Why So Close’ which is an absolute highlight ( the song first appeared on their debut album in 1986). Only the retread of 'We're Gonna Miss You' feels at all predictable. There's also a space for a new track (‘Love Made A Fool') which sadly buries the orchestral delights under too many guitars and percussion and feels a little incongruous in the process.
In recent months, some of the music's largest acts have tried to breathe new life into their back catalogues (let's not name names, it should be obvious), by stripping out the rhythm section or adding a string section - the results of which have been mostly unflattering. But James' persistent inventiveness, their non-conformity and the fact that they're such great songwriters sets them apart, their songs shine in a whole new light here. Enjoy 'Be Opened to the Wonderful', it is, as the young man once said '...so much more worthwhile'.