James

LIVING IN EXTRAORDINARY TIMES

James clearly have something to say. Living in Extraordinary Times, their fifteenth album and sixth since reuniting in 2007, opens with the militaristic hum of 'Hank', which finds Tim Booth's voice buried in distortion before breaking out into the open at the ninety second mark to announce that, "Democracy sells easy / NRA high fives... / Orlando, Sandy Hook and Columbine."

A stirring idealism has long underpinned James' biggest hits, but rarely have the band sounded so overtly political. "Land of the Free... Land of the Free!" cries Booth sarcastically during the spiky rush of 'Head', one of several tracks whose lyrics unmistakably target Trump's United States. It's a risky strategy, as political lyrics so rooted in the present age notoriously quickly.

Elsewhere, echoes of their rousing earlier work return, particularly on first single, 'Coming Home (Pt.2)', a semi-sequel to its 1989 near-namesake, 'Come Home'. The 2018 version is a paean to the false intimacy of Skyping home from foreign hotel rooms, though – as ever with this well-worn subject – it's difficult to feel the heartstrings tugging too hard for successful pop stars touring the globe. The line, "FaceTime on Father's Day / Five-thousand miles away," is a bit on the nose, even for James.

Even with an occasional foray into sentimentality, the yearning, heartfelt anthem is what James have always done best, represented here by house-piano epic 'Leviathan', motivational stadium sing-along 'Better Than That' and acoustic mea culpa 'Mask', with its soaring refrain, "I know I was wrong / Are you so sure that you're right?" It’s a niche they can continue to call their own.

Sam Gregory

Helena Hauff

QUALM

Helena Hauff’s follow-up to her 2015 debut LP for Ninja Tune is an uncompromising electronic workout, starting strongly with abrasive 808 drum patterns pushed to their very limit.

The Hamburg DJ and founder of the Return To Disorder label delivers a dozen tracks that begin with the bizarrely-titled ‘Barrow Boot Boys’, which sounds like it’s being played directly from a distorted block party soundsystem circa 1982. Fans of early US electro, German acts like Air Liquide and the output of Dutch techno imprint Djax-Up-Beats will be all over this.

303 acid basslines wobble in and out of focus, becoming smothered by insistent percussion that finally succumbs to an occasional bleeding four-on-the-floor kick drum. The strangely titled ‘Hyper-Intelligent Genetically Enriched Cyborg’ is a driving, warehouse stormer of a track, retaining the feeling that the machines in Helena’s studio were working overtime for this session.

Beats make way for calmer moments with the title track ‘Qualm’ (meaning 'fumes' or 'smoke' in German), which lasts for a short but sweet two-and-a-half minutes and gives a nod to classic seventies krautrock ambience.

‘No Qualms’ follows as a credible part two, with the same lush sounds as ‘Qualm’, except we hear the return of the heavy 808 drums to great effect. The album is as raw as any electronic album can be and it’s obvious that Helena has intentionally made it this way. It feels like a jam at times and that is part of the charm. It is what electronic music needs right now – an edge, unpredictability and a punk attitude.

Andy Tattersall