Monday, September 8, 2008

The Jam. Extras (Polydor, 1992)

"Both life and death are carried in this stream/ That open space you could run for miles/ Now you don't get so many to the pound."

They never made a huge impact in the U.S. charts, but the Jam were hit-making monsters in the UK. Between 1977 and 1982, the Paul Weller-led mod revivalists scored eighteen consecutive Top 40 singles (three at number one), all of which placed in the top 60 when they were re-released after the band's '82 break-up. Numerous Jam compilations and greatest hits collections have placed in the top 20 in the UK: Greatest Hits placed #2 when it was released in 1990, Extras was #15, The Very Best of the Jam was #9 in 1997, and The Sound of the Jam got to #3 in 2002.

It's easy to see why Weller's outfit is such an enduring presence across the pond: the Jam's mixture of sharp, amphetamine-fueled punk and driving soul and R&B is an undeniably winning sound, and continues to inspire folks today, most notably, perhaps, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Weller, though a middling lyricist in my estimation, has an incredible sense of melody, composition, and style (his next band would be named the Style Council, as a matter of fact), and possesses one of the strongest and emotive voices in rock. He can do punk bark and soulful croon equally well, and has a nice way with his phrasing.

Extras is, as you can probably guess, a collection of B-sides, outtakes, covers, and demos. However, instead of being a completists-only cash-in, it's a remarkable testament to just how good this band was: when your second string material is this strong, you've got an embarrassment of riches on your hands. Plus, Extras shows off a more freewheeling and experimental side of the Jam, a band having fun, exploring their boundaries, and paying respect to their influences and idols, giving the listener a clearer picture of where the Jam came from and where they wanted to go.

B-sides like "Tales from the Riverbank," "Shopping," and "The Butterfly Collector" put a far more introspective and softer side of the Jam on display, and prove that they could slow down the tempos and remain compelling. "Shopping," in particular, is simply gorgeous, a waltzing pastoral reminiscent of something off Nick Drake's Bryter Layter or Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, its warm, jazzy bass and guitar lines floating over a hypnotic flute and horn melody. It's honestly the last thing you would think of when thinking of the Jam, but telegraphs where Weller would go later, especially on solo efforts like Wildwood. Elsewhere, "The Great Depression" and demo "A Solid Bond in Your Heart" (which would later become a Style Council tune) have Weller wearing his soul influences on his sleeve, with Motown rhythm tracks and horn stabs taking center stage, like Elvis Costello on Get Happy!!.

The covers on Extras are all pretty great, showing off some obvious influences (the Who on "Numbers" and "So Sad About Us," the Small Faces on "Get Yourself Together,") and not-so-obvious (the Beatles on "And Your Bird Can Sing"), but seeing the Jam nail each one. The soul covers on Extras explain Weller's next incarnation as the Style Council: the band tackles Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up" (given a quicker tempo and an abbreviated running time, but retaining the brilliant horn lines and melody of the original, which is one of the most perfect songs ever written, so why mess with it?) and the Chi-Lites' "Stoned Out of My Mind," suggesting that Weller was tiring of the straight ahead guitar bashing most closely associated with the Jam and was itching to stretch out a bit. Demo versions of "Boy About Town" and "Thick as Thieves" are a little rougher than the album versions, but still make for great listens (the way the subtle minor key inflections of "Boy About Town" undercut the song's major key charge justifies repeated spins).

Paul Weller is a god in his native land. In the U.S., he's basically a footnote. And that's too bad, because though there's something distinctly British about his style and approach, his pure pop brilliance is universal. Extras probably isn't the best place to start if you've never heard the Jam (go with All Mod Cons or Sound Affects or Snap!), but it proves how deep this band's bench really was.