Once dubbed the next Smiths, Manchester, England’s James – lead singer Tim Booth, bassist Jim Glennie, guitarist Larry Gott, drummer David Baynton-Power, and violinist Saul Davies – labored in something akin to musical obscurity until the release of its third album, Gold Mother, in 1990. Released at the height of “Madchester” indie rock, the album spawned the massive U.K. hit single “Sit Down”. But it wasn’t until the 1993 release of Laid (James’ fifth album) that the U.S. music industry and fans took notice. Perhaps it was the album cover artwork, which featured the band’s members sporting a variety of summer dresses, that initially drew attention. Or maybe it was the catchy, easy-to-sing-along-with title track (now a permanent fixture in many a bar jukebox). Whatever the reason, between the album’s release and the end of the band’s triumphant U.S. tour in 1994, the album became its biggest stateside hit. Even a cursory listen reveals why.
On the heels of an acoustic tour with Neil Young, the band actively sought to steer their music into a quieter, more contemplative direction when they began the recording sessions for Laid. Working with uber-producer Brian Eno, they succeeded in creating an intimate collection of songs that both alluded to and expanded the indie-rock sound of their previous four releases. They refined their sound and sharpened their songwriting to create an album that is at turns folky (“One of the Three”), ambient (“Skindiving”), and anthemic (“Laid”, “Low Low Low”).
The quick and dirty title track doesn’t hint at the album’s languid pace and emotional complexity. Laid takes its time unfolding, and throughout the album, the band marries stirring melodies to thoughtful, emotionally resonant lyrics. Haunting album opener “Out to Get You” begins with gently strummed guitars before swelling to the climax of Booth’s yearning cry, “The human touch is what I need.”
Overall, the album hangs together on thematic threads of love, loss, hope, and spirituality. At one end of the spectrum are melancholy songs like “One of the Three” (a meditation on sacrificing oneself for others) and “Lullaby” (an eerie tale of physical abuse). Such poignant moments are contrasted with tracks like the joyous “Sometimes (Lester Piggot)” and its earnest, gospel-like chorus (“Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul”). The bawdy title track – which got even more exposure from its use in the film American Pie – celebrates a lusty, if dysfunctional, romantic relationship.
James doesn’t always take a sanguine view of love. Standout track “Five-O” at first seethes, then swells to a chorus that’s a stinging indictment of love (“If it lasts forever/hope I’m the first to die”). On “P.S.”, a sinister, loping guitar figure propels the song as it describes a disintegrating relationship (“You liar, you liar/You can’t live the dreams you’re spinning”). On the flip side, “Say Something” – the album’s second single and a minor hit on U.S. college radio – celebrates first love with synths and Britpop percussion.
At the time of its release, reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic called Laid one of the best albums of the ’90s. Sixteen years later, it’s hard to disagree. From the opening strains of “Out To Get You” to the last haunting notes of the sprawling, ambient “Skindiving”, there isn’t a bad track in this collection. Moreover, the album sounds as vibrant today as the day of its release. A career peak for an underrated band, Laid proved that it was still possible to make intelligent, accessible pop music.