Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June 29: James, "Laid"

Artist: James
Song: "Laid"
Album: Laid
Year: 1993

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While many writers and performers have claimed at various points in history that there is a very specific formula that dictates what will make a song a pop hit, there are just as many songs that completely defy all norms and trends, yet still manage to find great commercial success.  It is often when a song manages to be so unique, yet also find a way to find into the current sound, where the most unforgettable songs can be found, and there has rarely been a more fertile ground for distinctive musical approaches than the world of music during the early 1990's.  It was during these years where one could find slow, acoustic songs bellied up to hardcore rap on the charts, and nearly every genre in history was being blended together with others, resulting in some of the most wonderfully creative music of all time.  Among the bands that took full advantage of this situation were British folk-rockers, James, and though they had already made a name for themselves in their own country, it would be their 1993 release that would introduce them to a far wider audience.  As a band, they brilliantly combined contrasting moods with some of the most beautiful sonic landscapes of the era, and it was this album that proved that sometimes, a band must step slightly away from their core sound to find their true potential.  While the entire album is a fantastic musical experience, there are few songs that better define the entire decade of music than what one finds in James' wonderfully unsubtle and equally unforgettable 1993 single, "Laid."

Few songs in history have as ideal an introduction as one can experience on "Laid," as the quiet, mellow guitar progression from Larry Gott eases the listener into the song in a truly unparalleled fashion.  As his playing begins to speed up, the entire tension builds in parallel, and as drummer David Baynton-Power joins the fray, the tension and energy begin to overflow.  However, the band is able to keep the mood in check, and instead of coming off as over-done like so many of their peers, they find the balance in both sound and mood, and they keep it steady for the remainder of the song.  One of the crucial elements to this balance is the keyboard performance from Mark Hunter, as he lends a smooth, almost psychedelic undertone to the song that also provides a fantastic level of depth on "Laid."  The interplay between Hunter and Gott is the key to the song, as they seem to follow the same progression, yet approach it from such different angles that it results in true pop bliss.  Bassist Jim Glennie rounds on the song, finding the middle-ground between the slower sounds of the keyboards and the speed of the drumming, and the fact that there are so many rhythms working together on "Laid" is one of the main reasons that it stands as such a unique musical achievement.  The way that the musicians manage to blend together folk, rock, and even a bit of the post-punk sound is unlike any other song in history, and it makes it understandable why "Laid" found such success.

However, while one cannot understate the importance of this fantastic musical arrangement, one can easily argue that it is the vocal performance of Tim Booth that stands as one of the most definitive moments of the entire 1990's.  For anyone who grew up during that time period, his vocals are instantly recognizable and can transport the listener back to that point in their own history.  Working the entire vocal scale unlike any other frontman in recent memory, there is a steady power to Booth's voice whether he is ruminating in the lower registers or delivering his glorious, unrestrained sound on the chorus section.  Truth be told, his high-pitched cry during the chorus in itself is one of the most memorable moments in music history, and references can be found all across pop culture since it first was released.  Yet as superb as Booth's vocal performance is, "Laid" was certainly not without a level of controversy, as the rather risqué and unapologetic lyrics were often censored, and they can be interpreted in a number of different ways.  The song itself clearly revolves around a couple that mesh perfectly in the bedroom, but seem to be a complete disaster outside of that space, and while the song has a very playful tone, one must wonder to what degree lines like, "...caught your hand inside a til, slammed your fingers in the door, fought with kitchen knives and skewers..." were accurate.  Regardless of the intent and serious nature of the lyrics, Booth delivers an absolutely stunning vocal performance, and nearly two decades later, it can still light up a room in a way that no other artist has achieved.

Truth be told, "Laid" is a bit of a departure from the sound that James is best known for and what can be found on their other albums.  This single is a bit lighter and less melancholy than most of their music previous to that time, and get the group manages to make it fit perfectly with the rest of the album.  This fitting contrast may very well be due to the presence of the albums' producer, Brian Eno, who was certainly not a stranger to pushing musical limits in any sense of the word.  It is the fact that there is a darker, almost sinister undertone within the music of "Laid" that perfectly matches the more questionable intent of the lyrics which enables the song to seem a cohesive piece of the bands' overall catalog.  The fact that on many levels, "Laid" is a rather soul-bearing, intimate song also helps it to match the bands' previous work, and one can even argue that the lyrics are almost a confessional tale if nothing less.  While many see the words as a joyous celebration of lust, if one considers the deeper meaning behind the words, there can be found a great sense of frustration, as there is perhaps a bit of underhanded commentary in the line, "...but she only cums when she's on top..."  Combining this sentiment with the "out of the bedroom" chaos that is clearly defined, one can easily see the song as a bit of a tragic lament, as opposed to someone singing the praises of their carnal conquests.  Yet even if one reads the song in this darker manner, there is no denying how catchy and invigorating the song remains even after repeated listenings, and this is where one can find the unique genius that is James' extraordinary 1993 single, "Laid."

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