One of the things that happened after James hit it big with "Sit Down", was that long-time fans of this Manchester band had to awkwardly explain how great they were on their first record. And while there were a lot of folks who were somehow hip to that somewhat overlooked release, there were even fewer who remembered the band's long-out-of-print second album from 1988. If the band's commercial peaks revolve around the singles "Sit Down" in the U.K., and the subsequent "Laid" in the post-grunge U.S., the band's real artistic peaks were arguably their first 2 albums, Stutter in 1986 and Strip-mine in 1988. Now, thankfully, those 2 records are back in print along with everything else the band recorded for the Blanco Y Negro and Sire labels in that era. Compiled on a fine 2-CD set called Justhipper: The Complete Sire & Blanco Y Negro Recordings 1986-1988 from Cherry Red Records, those offerings from the early days of this band reaffirm this Manc act's place as one of the most innovative groups to emerge in the mid-Eighties.
Released in 1986 and never on CD in America, Stutter was produced by Lenny Kaye from The Patti Smith Group. The record, one of my most-prized cassettes in 1986 upon its release by Sire Records in the USA, is less like The Smiths than you might expect. Arising in the shadow of that band then, it was only natural that critics name-checked the other act when writing about James. And when Morrissey himself praised James, the connection was furthered, with listeners expecting a similar thing here. Still, despite those links, James' debut is pretty daring and even more of a risky endeavor than the first or second Smiths long-players. "Skullduggery" opens the record with talk of earwigs and things just get weirder from there. Still, "So Many Ways" and "Billy's Shirts" are fairly conventional stabs at the sort of indie-rock that many were making in the U.K. in the C86 era. There's a certain rhythmic looseness here that was surprising and appreciated in the era, as was the odd and loping "Scarecrow" which seemed to simultaneously recall both the second Velvet Underground record and a few things from The Feelies. On the epic and undulating "Johnny Yen", the band hits an early career peak where all the elements of this lot's approach seem to be working perfectly. The song sounds so fresh still and one should probably credit producer Kaye in some small way in encouraging the creation of this kind of non-traditional indie-pop in an era when acts like The Smiths were actually charting in the U.K. Disc 1 of Justhipper: The Complete Sire & Blanco Y Negro Recordings 1986-1988 concludes with 4 bonus tracks, including early and essential single "Chain Mail", as well as the ramshackle track that gives this collection its title.
Disc 2 of Justhipper: The Complete Sire & Blanco Y Negro Recordings 1986-1988 is made up of the neglected Strip-mine from 1988. The band's second album saw a U.S. release and even made it to the compact disc format on these shores. And, having worked in a college record store when it was released, I can say that it sold well enough in certain circles here. Still, it wasn't a huge hit and time has seen the record unfairly forgotten, not least because it didn't stay in print. "What For" is a fine slice of Smiths-style alt-rock, while the more lyrical "Are You Ready" unwinds in a manner that will make listeners now think of this band's releases later in the Nineties. Listening to this stuff now, along with numbers like "Ya Ho", and one can certainly understand why, in 1988, this band was being talked about as if they were the obvious heirs to The Smiths' legacy. Less adventurous than Stutter, Strip-mine remains a fine slab of U.K. indie that still earns favorable comparisons to other similar albums in the era, like Bringing Home The Ashes by The Wild Swans, for instance. Strip-mine makes up most of Disc 2 of Justhipper: The Complete Sire & Blanco Y Negro Recordings 1986-1988 but it's expanded with a full 7 bonus cuts, including a brief interview with the band recorded for promotional purposes. More interesting are the sea shanty-like "Left Out Of Her Will" and the rollicking "Mosquito", 2 more risk-taking numbers that were probably too adventurous for Strip-mine, which, in 1988, was being marketed here at least as a college rock record.
Justhipper: The Complete Sire & Blanco Y Negro Recordings 1986-1988 is out now. It is as perfect a distillation of the appeal of James as one is likely to find. If the band expanded both their sound and fan-base later, that's okay but it's this early stuff that some of us continue to love so much. Thanks to Cherry Red Records for putting this collection together and re-releasing these 2 essential albums for appreciative fans like me and many others of my generation.