Avail - Over the James (Cover Artwork)


Over the James (1998)

Lookout! records

Over the James was Avail’s fourth and final full-length for Lookout! Records. The LP capped off a wonderful run of powerful full-lengths that Avail released on the now-defunct Bay Area label. And while Over the James strayed from some of the sonic foundations of Avail’s earlier records, it was easily one of their most cohesively impressive LPs.

The most striking musical difference on Over the James was in the guitar sound. Gone were the hyper-kinetic and dissonant guitar harmonics that were staples on Dixie, 4 AM Friday, and Satiate. Instead, it seemed Avail had found a comfortable groove in a more austere and anthematic sound structure. To be clear, their earlier LPs were rife with anthems too. But, on Over the James, that anthematic groundwork came to the forefront.

“Deepwood,” the record’s opening track, showcased the mid-tempo approach Avail harnessed on much of the record. While the song’s bridge harkened back to earlier guitar sounds, the structure overall laid out much of what the rest of Over the James would offer the listener. This was a record written with maturity and a sense of the power of the simplistic. And “Deepwood” gave form to that maturity, as it moved with purpose from strong verses into a chorus that would have people singing along for years to come.

The fifth and sixth songs on Over the James seemed a nod to their earlier recordings. Both songs moved with high energy, pitching into and out of fast tempos, and balanced by great vocal patterns. “Nickle Bridge” stood out as a classic Avail song in that it deftly balanced speedy guitars with Tim’s measured yet melodic shouts. “Scuffle Town” followed and offered what might be Avail’s most simplistic and wonderfully hardcore song to date. An homage to their hometown of Richmond, the song at once deifies the beauty of the area while also sarcastically attending to its crime rates. The song blistered with the anger, energy, and melody so many bands have sought but failed to capture. Avail did though.

“Sanctuary 13” is a similarly outstanding song on Over the James, but more so for its ballad-esque qualities than anything we’d come to expect from Avail up to that point. The song was buoyed by a driving guitar riff complemented with crashing cymbal-driven drums. But it was in Tim’s vocals that a new musical power was realized for Avail. He offered his typically introspective lyrical content, but on “Sanctuary 13” he seemed to also find his ability to sing with the bravado of a singer-songwriter. He was growing beyond the frontman of a great punk band.

Songs like “SRO,” “Lombardy St.” and “Vine” filled out Over the James in true Avail fashion. Frankly, these were songs that on any other record would have been stand outs. But they were lost a bit here, given the steps forward that Avail had taken on many of the aforementioned songs from the LP. I mean, it didn’t get much cleverer than “SRO” in terms of an anti-groupthink scenester song both lyrically and musically.

The full-length’s closer, “Fifth Wheel,” combined the simplistic elements found throughout the rest of the record with tremendous choral chants. The result was a powerful song that gave credence to the ever-present punk themes of escapism, home sickness, and self-reflection. Yet another song that would have crowds singing along for years, “Fifth Wheel” was one of the strongest closing tracks to an LP from that era. It reflected everything that was Avail, in sound and ethos. Not to mention, a young Beau thanking us all for “purchasing this hardcore product.”

Avail would go on to release two more full-lengths, both on Fat Wreck, before taking an indefinite hiatus that lasts to this day. While the conversation is arguable, Over the James was, for me, their last great record. From a start to finish perspective, Over the James was tremendous. I’m not sure Avail was able to keep that up in subsequent releases. But when you manage to release as prolific a catalogue as Avail has, you’re bound to come up short at some point. Over the James was in no way a short change though. It was from the opening riff to the ending drum beat a phenomenal record, and the songs therein were widely popular at the band’s live shows for many years.