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Laid low

[Originally published 1994 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

"Dress me up in women's clothes. Mess around with gender roles. Dye my eyes and call me pretty." Is this RuPaul's latest single? Nay, it's a snippet from "Laid," the eponym of the new album by James.

It's a sophisticated departure from albums like Sit Down and James (both 1991) and Seven (1992), which were populated with the uptempo numbers that the burgeoning "Manchester sound" made obligatory at the time. Sing-along tunes like "Sit Down" and "Come Home," either of which could easily have been recorded by contemporaries like the Happy Mondays or the Soup Dragons, have given way to sombre numbers steeped in melancholy.

This, plainly, is a risk. When rock & roll maturity is translated into sobriety, moodiness, and introspection, the results are too often a bore. Some Depeche Mode singles are still worth listening to, but entire albums? Uh-uh. And how many old-school R.E.M. fans can stand listening to Green, Out of Time, or Automatic for the People all the way through – more than once, anyway?

Low-wattage emotions are difficult to get across in any medium, but that's exactly where Laid succeeds. Credit has to be given to moppet-like singer/songwriter Tim Booth. He imparts woe without inducing depression, tenderness and need without sparking cynicism and jadedness. And he does this without singing sotto voce all the time. Indeed, his voice ranges from an unsettling, lonesome dirge ("Five-O") to a falsetto (the gender-bending "Laid") to a Simple Minds-like wail ("Say Something"). When he rolls out "Someti-i-imes, when I look in your eyes I swear I can see your sou-ou-oul" (the chorus of "Sometimes"), Booth traverses as many tones as a verse of Cantonese poetry.

There has been so much drag in popular music in the last two years that I admit I didn't at first notice that the James boys were wearing dresses in Laid's cover art. (I guess I was too distracted by the bananas they're eating.) The boys also do drag in the video for "Laid," a confusing clip that tries to meld a laundromat backdrop, foreign-language subtitling, sex, and overexposed cinematography. No matter how good the James lads may be at eating bananas, that is a lot to bite off in one chew. The song itself works better; what TV censors would call its frank depiction of sexuality ("The bed is on fire with passion of love. The neighbours complain about the noises above. But she only comes when she's on top") are so manifestly rooted in reality and integrity that the song managed not to get banned from notoriously conservative radio and music-TV stations.

Video notes: Beastie & beastly