The Gathering Sound (Box Set)

Certain songs really fucking grate. I hate ‘Sit Down’ by James. It’s probably a good pop song, but its potential for joy had long been lost after I’d heard it for the millionth time and over-familiarity strangled the last remnants of bonhomie. I also hated having to sit down at James’ concerts when the track was played, which meant furtively squatting so as to avoid puddles of rank Arena Lager.

But what really hacks me off about ‘Sit Down’ is that for most non-fans it is the song that defines James – and in doing so pigeonholes the band as merely perky folk-pop triers who were beaten to the number one spot by Chesney frigging Hawkes.

For me, it would be very wrong for Tim Booth and co to be defined solely by their most famous song, when, in fact, James are a very fine and highly accomplished group, whose deft blend of pop, rock and folk has created a hugely inventive catalogue over the last three decades. Add in a sense that James’ have always been painted as ‘outsiders looking in’ – they were admittedly vastly inferior to their peers, The Smiths, and seemed to be invited to the Madchester party as an afterthought – and James’ fans could be forgiven for over-defensive tendencies towards their favourite band.

However, this new release will merely preach to the most anorak-clad of geeks already converted to the James cause. Almost certainly, every last person who will buy this weighty box-set will be fully aware of the depth and richness of James’ music. At a couple of quid short of £100 and peddling ONLY 12 new unreleased tracks, only serious fans need to form a (very orderly) queue.

For a not-insignificant wad of cash The Gathering Sound provides, amongst other things, some badges (for any 12-year-old fans), some nice prints and four utterly useless laminated backstage passes. There is a USB stick containing FLAC and Mp3 formats for some of the bands best known songs and the obligatory hardcore-collectors vinyl – which includes a fascinating demo of the mighty ‘How Was It For You?’ All of this stuff is non-vital to anyone but the über-fan and, personally, only serves as yet more fuel to fire my contempt of hugely over-priced box sets.

However, marketing gripes aside, the real meat of The Gathering Sound is to be found within the two CDs and one DVD that form the core interest. Both the ‘Studio Rarities’ and ‘Live Rarities’ discs house some great music that encapsulate Tim Booth’s rich vocal, Larry Gott’s articulate guitar work and a hugely-underrated percussion section.

The ‘Studio Rarities’ is fascinating. Whether it be early demos (both ‘Willow’ and ‘Say It With Flowers’ are very amateurish but oddly charming) featuring a pre-Booth Jennie Ingham on vocal, the live favourite – but previously unreleased – ‘Scratchcard’, or the gorgeous ‘Count Your Blessings’, there is much to admire about a band seemingly content to use their ‘outsider’ tag as a means to explore their musical limits.

James were also – and still are – a cracking live proposition. The ‘Live Rarities’ disc includes tracks from gigs covering a 26-year period, but it the songs from their Imperial Phase – I’d suggest from 1988 to 1993 and covering their Strip-mine, Gold Mother and Seven albums – that still stand out decades later. ‘Hang On’ from their 1990 Glastonbury set sounds stunning, while the pent-up frustration of ‘Come Home’ is one of the Madchester era’s greatest songs. James wrote some classic songs – even if it sometimes feels that the history writer’s have left them short-changed.

The inclusion of the Come Home DVD taken from a euphoric (and I was there) homecoming show at Manchester’s G-MEX in 1990 is a potent reminder of how popular the band had become by then. Highlights of the set include the mighty single ‘Lose Control’ which segues into lovely rendition of the Velvet’s ‘Sunday Morning’. However, the fact the concert had been previously released as a video in 1991 cheapens its inclusion within this set.

Oddly, The Gathering Sound also contains the mini-albums The Morning After and The Night Before, housed on a single CD, and still sounding as pedestrian as they did in 2010.

As with most expensive box-sets, The Gathering Sound is for super-fans only. For those with a passing interest in this most durable of bands, I’d suggest saving yourself 90-odd spondoolies and get yourself a copy of their best album, Gold Mother and take it from there. And if you seek out the 1990 original release – as opposed to the reissue of the following year – you will be spared having to cope with ‘Sit Down’. You’ll thank me in the long run.

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