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"From time to time you know you should be going on another bender"

Class C

Main Category: Smart Pop
Also applicable: Art Rock, Avantgarde
Starting Period: From Grunge To The Present Day
Also active in: --------




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Blur happened to be blessed with a blessing that's not too common for Nineties bands, at least, for Nineties bands with their share of mainstream success: two more than moderately talented individuals within one band. This is probably why, on the gut level, I actually like them more than The Jam, a group whose Nineties-updated clone Blur could pass for during a huge chunk of their career: after all, The Jam just had Paul Weller, didn't they? (No offense meant to the Foxton/Buckler rhythm section).

And it's not just that one of these guys, you know, sorta wrote songs, and the other one, uh, sorta played them on guitar. This happens all the time. But it just so happened that vocalist/main songwriter Damon Albarn had (still has, but he's cleverly concealing it now) a good knack for finding emotionally devastating vocal hooks, some of which seemed to come straight from the Lennon/McCartney textbook, or, at least, from the textbook of somebody who spent many a day studying the Lennon/McCartney textbook in his heart. He doesn't always succeed, but even when he doesn't succeed on a basic level, he still got his lovely trademark falsetto to substitute for the nasal cockney grumble every time it is necessary to make that goddamn impression.

And as for guitarist Graham Coxon, he had (still has, but he's got no one to play it off now) a good knack for taking these vocal hooks and setting them not just to classy-sounding, but rudimentary rhythm playing, so characteristic of some of even the most renown power-pop bands, but to actually memorable and, quite often, innovative guitar riffs; riffs that were heavy and crunchy when necessary, but very rarely descended into generic grungy racket. He actually got better and better at "deracketing" the music as the band progressed - just check the subtle difference between his overall sound on Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife; and when the band got into its experimental period, he was always there to provide the music with zillions of "creative noises" and unusually sounding riffs that can totally go gaga and be memorable at the same time.

What really puts Blur in a class of their own is not so much the general high quality of their material (although it is high) as their obvious creative evolution over the Nineties. Unlike your average marketed artist, these guys allowed themselves the luxury of going through several - quite different - incarnations. Beginning as a coattail-riding "Madchester" dance band (and not one of the worst, actually, although this was probably the most derivative period of their life), they quickly jumped off the sinkin' ship and in the process, became almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of "traditionalist" Brit-pop - that was when the chemistry between Albarn and Coxon really came to fruition, and it resulted in a trio of classic albums which managed to update the rusty old Paul Weller vibe in the same way as the Paul Weller vibe had once updated the rusty old Ray Davies vibe.

However, after reaching their peak with The Great Escape, Blur decided to shift their attitudes. It might have been caused by a very prosaic reason - their brand of Anglophilia pretty much fell on deaf ears in the States (niftily following the fortunes of both the Jam and the Kinks), or it might have been caused by Albarn's suddenly proclaimed love for American indie-rock like Pavement, or both, but whatever the reason is, in 1997 Blur switched gears and began making music that was rough, brutal, unpredictable, and, to an extent, weird, although still quite poppy in essence (to be strict, songs like 'Beetlebum' actually combine the values of indie-rock with the classic Britpop vocal hook, don't they?). Since then, Blur have never been the same. Unfortunately, commercial fluctuations and creative tensions finally played a dirty trick on the band, with Coxon leaving the band in 2003 to pursue a solo career (actually, he'd been putting out solo albums like mad for a few years before 2003, which was, of course, hardly looked upon with pleasure by Albarn). At the moment, the future does not look too bright for Blur.

Granted, the band did make quite a few questionable moves in its time. Perhaps the biggest blunder in its career was the intentional participation in the ridiculous "Blur vs. Oasis" war, which pinned the clearly more talented Blur against the clearly dumber, yet more commercial and accessible Oasis and was so hugely advertised in its time that even now for most people Blur and Oasis are closely associated when they really shouldn't be. (For some reason, I can't help but be reminded of the equally laughable "The Beatles vs. The Four Seasons" 'battle' in the early Sixties - ah, at least those were better times when the best one actually could win).

Another blunder was pushing 'Song 2' as a hit/commercial ditty/Starship Troopers soundtrack in the States, which resulted in a gruesome misrepresentation: ironically, Blur made it (relatively) big in the States with one of their least typical songs, and a misunderstood one at that - a song that essentially mocked the generic grunge stereotype was taken for a generic grunge stereotype (and I can only imagine the astonishment with which the average grunge kid would be listening to the album where that song came from). In short, it takes some good will and some serious listening to understand that Blur were really more than either run-of-the-mill pop-slop good-for-nothings or talentless two-chord bashers.

On the other hand, it is good to realize that Blur actually had commercial success in their prime (and yes, I do presume that their prime is already over, even if this takes some running ahead), because, along with a few other bands/artists, they have thus managed to prove the public tastes in the Nineties, at least, have not yet become completely incorrigible. Unbelievable as it may seem, many people still wanted pop music that boasted fresh, untrivial melodies, witty, metaphorical lyrics, and lively, meaningful guitar playing. With all of this, it would have been unwise to ask Blur to produce a musical revolution - as well - and they didn't, but they did give the world quite a bit of excellent music.

Lineup: Damon Albarn - vocals; Graham Coxon - guitar; Alex James - bass; Dave Rowntree - drums. Alas, Coxon left in 2003 during the Think Tank sessions, replaced by no one in particular (I still refuse to acknowledge Albarn as the band's guitarist, you understand).



Year Of Release: 1991

Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Hampered by the tight grip of Stone Roses-infested culture, but showing lotsa promise despite the odds!

Best song: WEAR ME DOWN

Track listing: 1) She's So High; 2) Bang; 3) Slow Down; 4) Repetition; 5) Bad Day; 6) Sing; 7) There's No Other Way; 8) Fool; 9) Come Together; 10) High Cool; 11) Birthday; 12) Wear Me Down.

Very often the "humble early beginnings" of a band can give a meek hint at the band not actually being that great even in the 'mature' stage. If you catch Alanis Morrisette doing silly teen-pop before going on to her "serious artist" stage, that looks fishy. If you catch Tori Amos doing cheesy metal-pop before going on to her "serious artist" stage, that looks even fishier. In the same way, Blur's first album catches them jumping on the trip-hop dance-your-ass-off Stone Roses-veneering bandwagon of the early Nineties (for other cases like these, see David Bowie's Black Tie White Noise), and the fact that they were so quick to abandon it before they took on the image of a collective latter day Ray Davies/Paul Weller looks fishy as well, doesn't it? Can a band's name be tattooed in shiny gold letters on God's own chest if it does not make a serious attempt to establish its own unique identity from the very beginning? Hey, even the Kinks had 'You Really Got Me' on their first sucky record...

But whatever the final resolution on that question might be, Blur have a saving grace - this record isn't nearly as bad as it's often described to be. In fact, it ain't bad at all. In fact, more than half of the songs on here display songwriting talent and a pack of chips - despite the sardonic protests of those who casually dismiss everything Blur did before they porudly unfurled the standard of "traditional Britpop". The big problem about the chips is that everything sounds the same, but then again, you could say the same about Oasis, and about Pearl Jam, and about Nirvana, and about, well, you get my drift: diversity wasn't exactly held in high honour in the Nineties. If you don't manage to come to terms with that, better pack your belongings right away outta the decade. Blur were just following the formula, and targeting a particular audience instead of a wider one.

Let's concentrate on the positive for the moment. Take a song like 'High Cool' and tell me what's wrong with it. The guitar riff is pretty simple, isn't it? But it's effective, playful, and catchy, and pretty much manages to neutralize all the bad effects of the generic beat (which you at least can actually dance to if you're in the mood). The vocal melody isn't too complicated, is it? But it is complicated enough to constitute a good pop song, and I really love the way Albarn rounds up each verse with that 'I really want/need you to' - a more than untrivial resolution to what was beginning as a run-of-the-mill type of verse. Is it a great song? Nope, not if you're talking Beatles or Kinks level here. But it's a tasty enough little piece of songwriting flourish, if you can bear with me putting it this way. Formulaic, but definitely not generic, as "generic" doesn't actually involve making any effort to pen a cohesive coherent melody of one's own, which this song has.

Nobody ever mentions that, though, and it's a pity. My impression has always been that when reviewing this record, people concentrate too much on the samey instrumental backing and do not pay enough attention to the vocals - and forget the stupid trip-hop, this album, when it's good, is all about vocal hooks. Well, like, say, 80% vocal hooks and 20% guitar hooks. 'Wear Me Down' has no guitar hooks (the guitar just kinda growls its way through the song out there far away in the background), but the vocal hooks? Last time I checked, the 'you - you wear me down my defenses are gooooone now' with its subtle modulation change at the end, fully corresponded to all the 'hook parameters' in my little black book. Again, that doesn't make it any greater than your average two-minute one-trick pop song, but it doesn't make it any worse either. I like the song.

Other good songs on the album include: 'There's No Other Way', where for a moment you almost hope they're gonna play it Bo Diddley-style (due to the opening playful guitar lines), before the standard beat comes in and ruins your expectations - which, once again, shouldn't prevent one from enjoying the vocal hook that a disgruntled Paul Weller might well-er have enjoyed; the album opener 'She's So High', which trades the trip-hop beat for a dreamier, 'cloudier' atmosphere (well, as befits the title, I guess - and it's probably their most obvious Stone Roses imitation), and boasts a marvelous use of keyboards - which seem to be tinkling their tinkle somewhere just below the guitar/bass but are so subtly mixed in you'd swear the tinkling was being "analogically" produced by your own brain...

...and the most unusual song on here (excluded from the American version of the album, probably because of its unusualness), 'Sing', which is more like a half-Goth, half-industrial dirge that pounds rather than plays on - if anything, you should simply trip out to the song rather than dance to it. At six minutes long, it strives to be epic, and eventually gets me a little bored, but don't try too hard to follow it and watch it sort of plunge you into this lazy dreamy atmosphere where time doesn't really matter. Another "dreamy" song is 'Birthday', which, this time around, tries to emulate the classic Pink Floyd atmosphere, and could seriously benefit from some Beach Boys-like (or, at least, Moody Blues-like - where's Justin Hayward when you need him?) harmonies - without them, there seems to be something vital that's missing, but it's still a solid effort.

I'll give you that most of the other numbers aren't that wonder-licious, but even so, there's pieces and patches of creativity everywhere - be it the funny 'I don't need anyone!' chorus of 'Bang', the funny fuzzy riff of 'Repetition' (which fully justifies its title otherwise), or, well, you come up with your own inventive twist. Now I don't think I need really concentrate on the negative here, since so many people already did it for me, but yeah, it does get monotonous, and I would appreciate it if less than eighty percent of the songs were based on more or less the same beat style, and I don't give it a rating higher than 'good', but if you wanna come straight up to me and ask, 'George! You're not really trying to be cooler than everybody else so you don't admit the truth about how this piece of shit record really offends your guts?', I can only answer by quoting one of the album's worst songs, 'Sorry but I'm not listening! I've got my mind on something... if I'm here at all!'



Year Of Release: 1993

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Now THIS is pop! Yeh yeh!


Track listing: 1) For Tomorrow; 2) Advert; 3) Colin Zeal; 4) Pressure On Julian; 5) Star Shaped; 6) Blue Jeans; 7) Chemical World; 8) Sunday Sunday; 9) Oily Water; 10) Miss America; 11) Villa Rosie; 12) Coping; 13) Turn It Up; 14) Resigned.

Good album, goddammit! This is where Blur decide they wanna revitalize the Kinks/Jam tradition on the Nineties level and kick in the New Wave of Brit-pop - Oasis would beat them commercially in this respect, but not artistically. And is it just me, or is the album title a (sub)conscious nod to the Jam's This Is The Modern World, by the way? The title just looks sooo Britpoppy, if you know what I mean. Ray Davies would be proud of it, too, as this is exactly the idea he'd been trying to hammer into his fans' heads for thirty years now.

Anyway, no more trip-hopping here. The songs are all straightahead pop music, although, of course, with a respectful nod to grunge and all that stuff - more often than not, the guitars are dirty, distorted, and jarring, so you can't accuse the band of being too retro in their attitude. (Not that it always works well. One thing all these new-fangled pop bands are definitely suffering from is the idea that extra noise belongs everywhere - not even The Who, Godfathers of "noise-rock", would agree with them on that one, I guess. But never mind). The lyrics are filled with the well-expected "little man imagery", but much less straightforward than the Kinks or the Jam ever had - again, in full agreement with the post-modern world. You won't be able to extract any specific, easily-reconstructable message from most of the songs. Well, apart from the main idea, I guess. Like, 'For Tomorrow' obviously means that modern life is rubbish ('he's a twentieth century boy... trying not to be sick again'), but Ray Davies would have probably expressed that in a much more accessible way. So we can indeed say that Albarn and company are living with the times. Modern life is rubbish. Postmodern life is not.

Not every idea they lay their fingers on actually turns to gold. In terms of vocal melodies and hooks, in fact, I wouldn't call this such a tremendous improvement over Leisure (which isn't so much of a negative diatribe against this album as it is a concealed compliment to Leisure, though). There's a bunch of songs that don't do nothing for me in that respect. However, it is a huge improvement in terms of production, arrangement, and diversity - there are harder rockers, there are softer rockers, there are ballads, there are mood pieces, and there's enough memorable riffs and various instrumentation techniques to keep things interesting over the course of the sixty minutes.

The major highlight is the already mentioned 'For Tomorrow', featuring one of the catchiest choruses in the Blur catalog - and one of the most ironic as well. Of course, if you haven't heard the song, it's hard to imagine how a chorus consisting of nothing but "la la la la"s can be 'ironic', but it can: it's one of those songs that make a point of contrasting the dire rubbish-y lyrical situation of the verses with the unexpectedly "optimistic" chorus ('Rockin' In The Free World', remember?). The song also boasts a pretty lush arrangement, with strings (or pseudo-strings, I guess) and hilarious falsetto backing vocals giving the song extra depth and all those cute vocal harmonies around. And guitars that aren't overdriven to the point of insanity, either.

That's only the first song, though. 'Advert' starts out with a funny, almost nursery keyboard riff, then kicks into high gear with a simplistic 'Louie Louie'-derived riff that actually works (believe it or not, there's a huge difference between copying the riff to 'Louie Louie' and slightly modifying it), and culminates in the hilarious "SAY SOMETHING - SAY SOMETHING - ELSE!" echoey chorus. The lyrics are extremely Kinksy - just look at all those references to waiting for the underground, holidays in the sun, "advertisements for rapid persuasion", etc. The looping minor chord riff of 'Colin Zeal' is moody and grayish, and its description of the average middle-class worker fits in perfectly with the Davies tradition once again.

Another favourite of mine is 'Chemical World', the most perfect XTC song that XTC never wrote (although I could sure imagine Mr Partridge singing that, and for once, I would have no problems with his vocals). In fact, I guess the vocals are the coolest thing about the song - apparently they're slightly distorted or fed through something that makes them sound a bit robotic, but in a kind of funny way, and when coupled with the powerful guitar onslaught, it gives the impression of a very friendly and consoling song, yet again, if you consult the lyrics, you'll find them to be anything but consoling. Or maybe the coolest part of the song is the insane speeding-up piano-based music-hall "coda" to the number? That one is almost certainly a tribute to the Stones' 'Cool, Calm, And Collected' (non-coincidentally, a song dating from the Stones' "Brit-poppiest" period, too), and it's a whole lot of fun, although I still like the Stones coda better, not to mention that this one doesn't even fit into the song - it's like a completely unrelated "interlude".

At times Blur get caught up in their influences so much they don't seem to notice they're blatantly ripping off ideas: 'Coping' is obviously based on a riff that reproduces the melody of Argent's 'Hold Your Head Up'. But at least it's used in a completely different way (not to mention the fantastic synth solo in the middle that's one hundred percent Blur!), and it's not a pattern that's common to all of the album. At other times their influences can pay them a disservice - for instance, the Syd Barrett send-up 'Miss America' lacks memorability and can't really function as a substitute to the real thing either. I mean, it's much harder to get by through atmosphere alone than it is to get by through a memorable melody, and Blur aren't exactly the most "atmospheric" band in the world. On the other hand, I do love the album's conclusion: 'Resigned' gets quite a bit of flack from fans and reviewers around the world, but I think the repetitive synthesizer melody that drives the song is actually very pleasant to the ear and helps you get out of the whole experience on a relaxed, almost "becalmed" note (not exactly, though, because once again they end the song in an instrumental "epilog" that doesn't have anything to do with the main body of the song and is actually quite a rocking one, in dire contrast).

My final impression is that the record would need quite a bit of trimming - not a hard task to do, actually; it's a very good sixty-minute-long album that could make a terrific forty-five-minute-long album. If you're interested, here's my perfect Modern World: 'For Tomorrow', 'Advert', 'Colin Zeal', 'Pressure On Julian' (mainly because that siren-wail-like guitar riff is so cool), 'Star Shaped' (mainly because the vocal harmonies are hilarious), 'Blue Jeans', 'Chemical World', 'Coping', 'Turn It Up', and 'Resigned'. You can add 'Oily Water' as a bonus track on Japanese imports, because I'm formally impressed by the wall-of-sound they construct at the end, but not enough impressed to not being able to imagine living my life without it. And there you go.

But then again, heck, even the songs I've omitted have their moments - listening to 'Villa Rosie' or 'Sunday Sunday' on their own, out of the context of superior material, still has them functioning as these cute little slices of Britpop that sound friendly and inoffensive regardless of memorability. So let's not hold any grudges - this is a solid, consistently entertaining, and smartly constructed album that fully deserves "classic" status. Thumbs up.



Year Of Release: 1994

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Blimey! Not just pop - ambitious pop! With artsy leanings, guvnah!


Track listing: 1) Girls And Boys; 2) Tracy Jacks; 3) End Of A Century; 4) Parklife; 5) Bank Holiday; 6) Badhead; 7) The Debt Collector; 8) Far Out; 9) To The End; 10) London Loves; 11) Trouble In The Message Centre; 12) Clover Over Dover; 13) Magic America; 14) Jubilee; 15) This Is A Low; 16) Lot 105.

With their third album, Blur finally made it obvious: they did not want to be The Stone Roses, nor did they really want to be XTC - they wanted to be The Jam. Really, you can hardly lose if you want to be The Jam. Being The Jam gives you lots of creative freedom, you know. You can rock out as much as you want, but you can also be poppy; you don't always have to be smart, because you can have enough energy to compensate for lack of smartness, but if you do want to be smart, hey, no prob. Occasional excursions into weird stylistic territory? Hey, you're welcome. Problems with your lead vocalist? Well, as long as you can actually hit the notes, you don't need to have a super-duper set of chords because that would make you alienated from the people at large.

And, of course, if you want to be The Jam as late as the mid-Nineties, this means you're going against the basic "formulaic grain" of the mainstream, but not really without any hope of commercial success; after all, being the Jam doesn't make you all that retro, they aren't the Beatles or even the Kinks for Chrissake, they only disbanded like fifteen years ago, their style is still vital. Make a little personal twist of your own, add a couple things The Jam never did so you can't be directly accused of stealing, and there you go. If you're talented, you can't lose. Were Blur talented? Sho' 'nough. Meaning that Parklife was guaranteed to become an artistic success. The Mod tradition never dies.

Parklife is quite similar to its predecessor, but one important thing is different: it is much more cohesive and even 'conceptual' in nature. One can think of it as a smarmy nerd intellectual's take on life in modern day London - which is funny, because after the direct Modern Life Is Rubbish vs. This Is The Modern World analogy, the third Blur album begs direct comparison with the third Jam album (All Mod Cons), as if they were just taking these situations and casting direct projections onto the world fifteen years later. What makes Parklife an even "tighter" experience is the multitude of cute little instrumental links scattered throughout - with little aim other than serving as subtle glue to tie up all the major bricks. These are sometimes thought of as filler, but that's an incorrect conception - obviously, they'd never belong on "best of" collections, but they have an important function here.

Even more important, of course, is the realisation that the actual songs are all good. Formally it looks like Blur's greatest advance here is in the lyrics department: Albarn's word portraits become more complex and imaginative without becoming meaningless in the process (pretty much the same line of development that was taken by Weller, too). But they don't get more complex at the expense of hooks, oh no. 'Girls And Boys' is a great way to start the record, with a melody that boasts almost nursery-rhyme simplicity and near-disco straightforwardness, but at the same time is catchy and evocative - just the thing that we so sorely lacked in Nineties' pop. By the time he gets around to the continuous, pseudo-robotic chorus, you know this is gonna be a good record.

With "nerdy" albums like this one, my biggest concern is always the same - how well will the band be able to combine sarcasm, tongue-in-cheekiness and the obligatory post-modern approach with real sensitiveness and emotionality? On Parklife, Blur find the perfect solution, including a couple lovely ballads that manage to sound "normally" endearing and gentle without cheap sentimentalism - the best of these being 'End Of A Century', where the cathartic effect (well, maybe not exactly 'cathartic', but it's close), instead of generic strings or overaffected vocal intonations, is achieved by subtle 'Waterloo Sunset'-derived angelic harmonies in the background, Albarn's own "innocent" delivery of the chorus, and a beautiful French horn line in the finest tradition of John Entwistle. As you can see, there's influence and imitation a-plenty, but at the same time there is hardly any specific song that I'd name as a direct prototype for 'End Of A Century'. Another fine ballad is 'Badhead', where Albarn's husky vocal makes a perfect counterpoint for the ringing guitar - not to mention all the vocal hooks.

If you ask me, it's hardly a gratifying task to try and determine which of the songs on here are "more" derivative and which ones aren't. A song like 'Tracy Jacks' can get a lot of flack from some reviewers for sounding like an inferior Ray Davies imitation (although I'd definitely substitute "Ray Davies" for "Paul Weller"), but the basic question is: would we really like it less had the Kinks, or the Jam actually written it? I'm not sure. It's a good song, with several different vocal melodies, a funny 'Get Back'-like martial pattern, well-placed strings, well-placed 'whoah whoahs', and convincing atmosphere. Likewise, I have no problems with their tackling French-styled pop with 'To The End' - and I'm sure somebody like Charles Aznavour wouldn't have any problems with it either. Yes, without having the chance to hear this stuff, it may be hard to believe that Albarn and Co. are able to pull off the cheesy, but subtle "majesty" of the pompous cabaret ballad, but that's just how it goes.

The stylistic diversity, of course, presupposes the existence of several duds, which might differ for different people - me, I'm not head over heels with the "rockier" songs like 'Jubilee' (another, but this time, subtly masked variation on the 'Hold Your Head Up' riff) or the Mod-punkish 'Bank Holiday', although I do respect the weird thing they do with the superficially basic time signature of the verses, "speeding up" the last measure. On the other hand, the slightly otherworldly 'Trouble In The Message Center' - for some reason, it reminds me of a couple Police songs on Ghost In The Machine; must be that "cosmic synthesizer" line ripping through the verses - is an excellent song.

One can hardly conclude the review, of course, without mentioning the slightly sarcastic 'Magic America' (the classic "starry-eyed fantasy" tune that Ray Davies used to like so dearly, but not really as 'America-hating' in its essence as some would suggest) - and its funny, intentionally kiddie-like chorus; or the anthemic title track, which, given the gruesomely inevitable globalisation and all, might just be the last ever convincingly authentic "I'm an everyday Englishman and I luv it" declaration penned by a rock musician; or the obligatory "trippy" showcase of 'This Is A Low' with quasi-acid guitars and mantraic dreamy choruses. In short, to make a convincing review of Parklife, one has to mention pretty much everything, and that's important.

Parklife isn't an "improvement" over whatever The Jam did in that same department, just as whatever The Jam did in that same department was no "improvement" over what the Kinks did in that department. It should be thought of in terms of movie remakes, where the chance that a remake will be more innovative, thought-provoking, and tasteful than the original is always low (but not non-existent), but the chance that it will still be interesting, exciting, and, above all, giving the viewer a possibility to compare the two and draw his own conclusions and theories about both the movies and the circumstances that are responsible for the differences between the two, is pretty high. That, IMHO, is how Parklife should be judged. And if you don't wanna judge it, well, just dig the songs. They deserve it.



Year Of Release: 1995

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

Not just artsy - artsy and weird. No wonder Oasis outsold them.

Best song: TOP MAN, or maybe STEREOTYPES

Track listing: 1) Stereotypes; 2) Country House; 3) Best Days; 4) Charmless Man; 5) Fade Away; 6) Top Man; 7) The Universal; 8) Mr Robinson's Quango; 9) He Thought Of Cars; 10) It Could Be You; 11) Ernold Same; 12) Globe Alone; 13) Dan Abnormal; 14) Entertain Me; 15) Yuko & Hiro.

No long-time formula for these guys, every new album must bring in a fresh line of vegetables. And when you're climbing higher, it's obvious that at one point you'll start climbing down the other side, which is why the compact and cohesive pack of Blur fans tends to split at this exact moment - with some considering The Great Escape to be another high peak they just scaled and others thinking of it as a pretentious bog they just got stuck in. Should Blur be a basic Brit-pop band concerned with hooks and hooks only or should we allow them an artistic vision of their own even if it does not always suit our pop-lovin' little souls? I vote for the latter.

And voting for the latter, I, of course, have no choice but to acknowledge this puppy as the best Blur album of all time and the high point of their "Great British Trilogy", although, to be very frank with you, this is not a very high 13 and at times I would still go for Parklife or MLIR as my personal favourite. See, when Blur get a bit too weird, they can get a bit too disconcerted and aimless. I honestly don't like 'Mr Robinson's Quango' all that much. No, I really don't. It's the kind of loud, obnoxious, constantly-changing tune that was originally the specialty of Frank Zappa (in fact, some of the unexpected "jazzy" interludes and intermissions really sound as if they were intended to be tributes to albums like One Size Fits All). I wasn't a big fan of this particular absurdist branch of music-making during my Zappa period and I still am not - besides, obviously I'd much rather listen to this type of music as performed by Frank's hyper-professional musicians.

There's also an occasional filler tune or two. Every time Blur do a ballad, it scares me to death because I know for sure they can heat a ballad up just fine, but every once in a while they'll just rely on a standard atmospheric trick (the usual one is to have Albarn sing in a soft hypnotic voice with falsetto backing vocals around) without backing it up with something truly interesting - like an unpredictable voice modulation. This happens on the wonderfully titled 'He Thought Of Cars', whose weepy, squeaky, echoey guitar line in the background just isn't enough to compensate for the fact that the rest of the song is nothing more than a squishy dreamy mush with not much musical substance to it. And considering that 'Mr Robinson's Quango' and 'He Thought Of Cars' are placed right next to each other smack in the middle of the album, you can only imagine what it does to my overall perception of the second half of it.

But let's not speak of our problems any more. Instead, let's concentrate on the good stuff. The good stuff is that with every new album - until this one, that is - Blur move further and further away from the generic "modern rock band" image. They keep adding new instruments, new music textures, new time signatures, but do it so gradually it takes some time to understand how far they actually progressed. If MLIR still sounded like a Kink-o-Jam-influenced alternative rock outfit clearly belonging to the Nineties, then The Great Escape already sounds pretty timeless. When was the last time you heard them do the generic "post-grunge" jarring guitar crunch? The one I've been complaining about in my review of MLIR? Well, a couple of songs on Parklife still did that, but not here. Here, all the guitars are used wisely and sparingly. And dinky keyboards as well as pianos, brass, and strings all occupy honourable positions.

Lyrically, it has often been remarked this album makes a transition from "lower class problems" to "middle class problems" - with Albarn concentrating on making astute social commentary on the life of the Everyday Suburbian Joe. That does not in any way mean that the lyrics have become any less interesting: the band does not make the mistake of stooping to the level of post-1972 Ray Davies (in case you're wondering, the basic difference is that pre-1972 Ray Davies used to shove his message in your mouth and leave it there intact, while post-1972 Ray Davies used to carefully chew that message up for you and then leave you with the yucky saliva-covered mash). After all, we do live in the post-modern era, baby, and that's why it doesn't hurt to safeguard your poetic reputation by adding lines like 'Yeah, they're stereotypes, there must be more to life' into a song about wife swapping.

But above and beyond all of that, The Great Escape is essentially just a very, very good pop album. Out of its fifteen compositions, I've namechecked the two I do have problems with - meaning I have no problems with any others. Sure, 'He Thought Of Cars' is way too smooth and unmemorable for a ballad, but that little misfortune is fully redeemed with 'Best Days' - a ballad that also plods along rather lazily until the magnificent chorus. Aaah, sometimes it makes me sad that Albarn doesn't have a beautiful singing voice like the one his main idol has (I, of course, mean Ray Davies; Paul Weller's sonic weapon makes Albarn sound like Maria Callas in comparison) - then the next minute I catch myself thinking 'nah, that'd only make me dismiss him as a Davies clone before even giving him a chance'. And then there's the goofy 'Yuko & Hiro' which somehow manages to take the "ironic everyday life description" motive, add a lyrical-and-musical touch of Japanese, make the music sound a little Martian with otherworldly electronic noises, and get away with it all. I still can't quite make out the charm of that song.

If there's one constantly repeating trick Blur can be accused of, it's their relying on the "La La La Vocal Hook" - starting with the days of 'For Tomorrow', they never ever relinquished this tradition and it is in full flow on The Great Escape. But they do it so well I just can't blame them for that. On 'Charmless Man' (Ray Davies really must have pissed his pants out of jealousy for that one - what a fine addition the song would have made to his own collection of plastic well-respected men!) the "na na na"s are a wonderful confirmation for the 'sycophantic' atmosphere of the song. On 'It Could Be You' (one more subconscious variation on the 'Hold Your Head Up' riff - aren't some things really infectious?) the "doo doo doo"s don't do anything particular but still manage to sound like a Tremendous Lot Of Abstract, Highly Irrational Fun. And on 'Dan Abnormal', the demented "la la la"s are... well - demented. Just like the title suggests.

That said, few songs on here really top the initial impact of 'Stereotypes'. A simple power-chord based riff drives the song forward like a prime-time Nugget I with modernistic synthesizer embellishments; a simple nursery-rhyme based vocal melody propels it even further like a first-class Nugget II with modernistic lyrical associations; and the only problem is that they should have made it twenty seconds longer by giving that wild organ swirl a little bit more time to develop into a proper solo. But that's nitpicking. What's not nitpicking is that it still manages to be overridden with the ominous atmosphere of 'Top Man', probably the weirdest and catchiest cocktail these lucky nerds ever managed to offer the public. There's a grim, uncompromising bassline. Hear that? A gruff garage guitar part with a little bit of echo for good measure. That's understood. BUT! There's also an Eastern-sounding synthesizer part. WHY? There's more character assassination lyrics - very vague so that, with a bit of luck, you can pretty much fit anyone you like (or, rather, dislike) into the protagonist position. There's a naggin', almost annoyingly catchy "whistle lead line". There's the title of the song spelt out letter by letter. And, strangest of all, there's the word "OHM" chanted throughout. Now surely I've given you some food for thought here.

In any case, it was a good album. The closest they ever came to jumping over their own heads and introducing a new pattern of their own making - I can't even say that this album really sounds like The Jam anymore. Still lots and lots of direct tributes to their "elders", of course: 'Country House' is more Ray Davies than anything a la Ray Davies, and, by the way, isn't 'Ernold Same' a conscious spoof on Syd Barrett's 'Arnold Lane' (the title, I mean)? But you definitely can't just reduce this to a sum of influences, no sir. Yes, and way too "non-commercial" for Blur standards, which was at the same time good - proving that Blur were artists indeed - and bad - because apparently it scared them so much they went ahead and made the follow-up a bit too commercial. But there I go speaking in terms I actively dislike again. There's nothing to be afraid of anyway: even 'Mr Robinson's Quango' isn't nearly as weird as I've described it. You'll get used to it. All it takes is a little bit of wiggling your big toe.



Year Of Release: 1997

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Hey! The weird's alright, the artsy's alright, but whatever happened to the pop? Where we goin'?

Best song: BEETLEBUM

Track listing: 1) Beetlebum; 2) Song 2; 3) Country Sad Ballad Man; 4) M.O.R.; 5) On Your Own; 6) Theme From Retro; 7) You're So Great; 8) Death Of A Party; 9) Chinese Bombs; 10) I'm Just A Killer For Your Love; 11) Look Inside America; 12) Strange News From Another Star; 13) Movin' On; 14) Essex Dogs.

Uh-oh. This is definitely not an expected followup to The Great Escape. In fact, this is something completely different. All of a sudden, Blur pretty much throw all the Brit-poppiness out the window and opt for the American underground sound instead. This should be acutely stressed: this album is a radical departure from the preceding "trilogy". In this world of ours, few artists are expected to make radical departures, but Blur do make one, and should be commended for that. Not that the world couldn't benefit from yet another Jam-oriented Britpop album, but, let's face it, no talented artist wants to be pegged as a 'one-trick pony', and with this record, Blur have successfully denied the right to be called that - regardless of whether you like the actual album or not.

And I do like it. Truth must be told, however - where the previous trilogy was primarily the brainchild of Damon Albarn, Blur belongs, fully and completely, to the band's guitarist Graham Coxon. I don't mean that to say that these songs are poorly written and only Graham's guitar can lively them up - I'd rather put it this way: these songs were meant to be played by Coxon and subjected to his arsenal of tricks. This is a hundred-percent guitar-dominated album, and one of the best guitar-dominated albums of the Nineties at that. If you don't believe it, the best thing is to sample the album - take something like fifteen or twenty seconds off each song, play them in a row and remain amazed at just how many different cookies this guy has enabled.

Basically, Blur is that pleasant kind of album that gives avantgarde a good name. Much too often, avantgarde is just a few guys dicking around trying to make you feel like they're stoned out of their mind when they're really stone cold sober, and in these cases, music is more like a psychological conundrum which you have to 'decipher' in whatever way seems more appropriate to you. (Sonic Youth comes to mind - hey, I like Sonic Youth, but 'scuse me if I confess I don't feel 'em, in my guts, that is). But here, "avantgarde" is the same few guys gathered together trying to make as many weird sounds out of their instruments as possible and then shape them into something listenable, rhythmic, and even catchy. I certainly realize that this is not "true" avantgarde - hardcore fans of endless progression will deride me for taking phoney commercial substitutes instead of the ambitious genius of Metal Machine Music - but that's the way I like it, period. Weird enough to be worth your attention, and listenable enough to stay with you once it's gone. That's the ticket.

Few, if any, of the songs make any linear sense - well, 'Look Inside America' seems to be continuing Albarn's trend of ridiculing basic concepts of American mass culture, and Coxon's 'You're So Great' is pretty straightforward and all, but that's about it. Deciphering avantgarde lyrics is something I definitely wouldn't recommend to even the most astute specialist in poetology, anyway. But this is an album that mainly makes its impression through sound. What does 'Beetlebum' mean? Does it have any particular message? Even if it does, I don't want to know what it is. What I care about is that funny looping hard rock riff that drives it forward, and the way it attenuates Albarn's world-weary vocalizing - and, of course, that oh so Beatlesque dreamy chorus. In fact, speaking of Beatles, if there is any particularly "ancient" influence for this album, I'd definitely quote 'Happiness Is A Warm Gun' - and about an entire half of Ram, so as not to discriminate Sir Paul. It's the same kind of glorious nonsense, completely feeling-oriented, only without the pot this time.

Of course, no Blur review can do without mentioning the infamous 'Song 2' (so named because it is, in fact, song 2), probably Blur's most famous two minutes of noisemaking - in the States, at least; but the strangest thing about it is that it's actually little more than a bait for the unsuspecting record buyer. A two-minute little grunge ditty that essentially ridicules grunge ('when I feel heavy metal! and I'm pins and I'm needles!'), for some reason it really caught the public eye and became a hit... well, "for some reason" is a bit of an exaggeration - it was obviously a 'hit bait', and with its 'Woo hoo!' chorus, it is catchy enough and dumb enough to appeal to just about every silly rebellious teenager not knowing what exactly he rebels against. I, of course, enjoy it as a short outburst of straight sarcasm.

But, like I said, it's really atypical of the album, if only for the reason that there's nothing particularly "guitar-crazy" going on in it, unless you count generic grunge bashing a particularly "guitar-crazy" element. 'Beetlebum' is far more representative of it. But then there's also 'Country Sad Ballad Man', with its weirdass tremolo effect that makes the guitar sound as if a big nasty lizard were chewing on the strings all the time; there's 'M.O.R.', with its fast half-wailing, half-scraping riff and endless siren-wailing-imitating passages; there's the Pixies-like 'Death Of A Party', replete with "burning" guitar sound and moody buzzing noises all over the place; there's the half-funk, half-Hawkwind trance-rocker 'I'm Just A Killer For Your Love' where Coxon's guitar sounds like a vacuum cleaner continuously getting turned on and then turned off; and there's even a little nod to the country's psychedelic past - the instrumental 'Theme From Retro' would not have been out of place at a 1967 show at the UFO club. With Syd Barrett on lead guitar, of course. Who else?

Amidst all this mess, though, the hooks still stand out loud and proud, be it the braggy boozy chorus of 'On Your Own' or the punkish abandon of 'Chinese Bombs'. When all has been said and done, this is still an album of pop songs, and the only time Blur violate that rule is at the very end, with the six-minute "free-flowing" composition 'Essex Dogs', whose only lyrics consist of a "three-verse" abstract (and nasty-sounding) narrative from Damon, after which freedom rules and the air starts reeking of Lou Reed's stale underwear. (It would be a little silly to suggest that Lou himself was "re-inspired" to write his grand avantgarde opus 'Like A Possum' after hearing 'Essex Dogs', but I wouldn't exclude that possibility!). 'Essex Dogs' is definitely anything but a highlight, yet, at six minutes, it doesn't try my patience out that much, and besides, there's at least something happening in it - not to mention they prob'ly needed at least one track like that to establish some sort of credentials among the hip indie crowds.

And, just as 'Essex Dogs' brings these tendencies to a radical terminus, so does 'You're So Great' present us with a brief, but necessary, moment of total relief from the scragginess and scrubbiness of it all. An intentionally low-fi ballad from Coxon, it is almost surprisingly sincere-sounding and emotional - although many have compared it with the Kinks, to me it sounds almost exactly like one of those numerous John Lennon solo demos from his solo careers, not least because Coxon sounds so similar to John in a lyrical mood. In any case, 'You're So Great' is pretty much the only obvious trace of their Britpoppiness on this album, but a necessary one. You don't just dump your past like that, you know.

It is very probable that you won't like this album much - about as equally probable as the possibility of your liking it very much where you used to dislike what came before. And this, in my eyes, is good and really demonstrates the talents of this band, not any less so because they dared to make this transition when they were at the peak of their artistic career.



Year Of Release: 1999

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

If you needed any more evidence that Blur have gone all Artistic on our asses, take a look at that album cover.

Best song: COFFEE & TV. Or TENDER

Track listing: 1) Tender; 2) Bugman; 3) Coffee & TV; 4) Swamp Song; 5) 1992; 6) B.L.U.R.E.M.I.; 7) Battle; 8) Mellow Song; 9) Trailerpark; 10) Caramel; 11) Trimm Trabb; 12) No Distance Left To Run; 13) Optigan 1.

They did it. They crossed that thin, but quite realistic, line which separates "conservative art" from "off-the-deep-end art". With this album, there's no backing away: you have to decide. Either you give this thing the thumbs up and join the small group of Mentally Different Individuals or you give this the thumbs down and stay yer average human, with the Mentally Different Individuals branding you as a mainstream retard and you branding the Mentally Different Individuals as Mentally Different Individuals.

So, when it came to me and the Great Dispensor Of Critical Opinions addressed me and said "George! Are you pro-13 or anti-13? Choose yer badge!", I just said, 'I'm pro-13, but please, can I wear that badge on the inside?' And when he said 'I guess you can', that made me feel better. See, I like this album. Blur's big stab at combining deep emotionality with avantgarde techniques of musicmaking does work. But that doesn't mean 13 is their greatest statement, nor does it mean that they really feel at home with this kind of approach.

Now, for starters, the self-titled album wasn't their greatest musical statement either. After three albums of first-rate Britpop, they intentionally made this "transition" into a completely different style that wasn't their forte. Couldn't be, actually. They could just as well start doing hip-hop or medieval folk. However, while they didn't make American indie-rock their "own", they still had enough interesting, intriguing, and original musical ideas to make their effort sound competent. Like I said, every song had a weird guitar hook or something. On 13, however, while leaving the 'basics' intact, they opt to approach them from a different side - the atmospheric one. This is Blur's "Atmospheric Masterpiece".

It has often been said that most of the songs here were inspired by Damon's breakup with his girlfriend, the singer from Elastika. Now me, I have this personal bias - I really don't like albums about breakups. I even had a few nasty words to say about Blood On The Tracks, not to mention several lesser efforts. See, at times, it almost looks as if the artist were intentionally having this breakup to provide him (or, just as frequently, her) with inspiration - I know this sounds harsh, but it's a real kind of thing, sort of a "ooh, I feel so bad about this, I'm gonna work myself up and feel even worse and then I'm gonna work myself up some more and feel really fuckin' bad and that's when I go into the studio and make an artistic triumph'. And in this case, when you have a guy like Damon Albarn who has, so far, never made one truly "sincere emotional" statement that I could identify with, and now he suddenly unleashes this torrent of 'I feel so bad' statements upon me, well, I don't feel too good myself.

The worst thing is that he obviously finds himself justified in this position to make longer and longer albums (this one is nearly seventy minutes long) and longer and longer songs (three of these go over seven minutes), and infests these songs with longer and longer "atmospheric" sections that capture a 'groove' or, rather, a mood - usually not a very complex one - and ram it to death. This is the most padded Blur album ever. I can do with seven minutes for 'Tender', but neither 'Battle' nor 'Caramel' deserve this sadistic stretching. And even the shorter songs, every single one of them except 'B.L.U.R.E.M.I', could be one minute shorter - to good effect. There's just not enough interesting things happening inside to deserve those lengths.

A typical example of a song that I'm just not ready to accept from Blur is '1992'. First of all, it more or less recycles the monotonous 'jang-jang-jang' pulsation of 'Sing' off their debut, doesn't it? And it does that for five friggin' minutes, and the only thing that's different is this "noise crescendo", with distorted guitars, distorted organs, and all kinds of distorted astral noises slowly adding up one after another. Now, I don't mean to be rude, but isn't that particular trick sporting a long, long beard? Everybody from Pink Floyd to every single Krautrock band had, at one time or another, done something like that, and I just don't feel any particular need for this thing. At least when I have me a nice derivative Britpop song like 'Stereotypes', I can just dig it for its melody and forget about everything else. But '1992' doesn't even have a melody. And it bores me. Honestly.

Even when Blur do try to make up a melody, they sometimes fail on here - probably intentionally. I totally dislike 'No Distance Left To Run', the "aching", "emotionally honest", "contemplative" (insert your favourite aristocratic definition here) ballad that closes the album. Coxon has a cool guitar tone going on there, but it's no great shakes after all the miracles he'd done earlier on Blur; but neither the vocal nor the instrumental melody are one bit memorable, and I can't live on somebody else's soulful suffering alone - I got plenty of my own. (Yeah, I know some of my readers regularly doubt that I have a soul in the first place, but that's the thing with souls - they're so different from each other that some of them have trouble recognizing each other). Perhaps it would work out all right as soundtrack to a movie like, er, I dunno, Magnolia - where Aimee Mann's broken-hearted wailings work just fine, but I'd hardly want to listen to them on their own. Here, I don't believe it and I don't want it.

But enough bad news. You'd think, judging by my critiques, that this is Blur's Tales From Topographic Oceans or something - it isn't! A huge chunk of the record succeeds, I'd say, despite the overal flaws of the product. First of all, the way it begins, you'd never even guess how it would end. The first song is a friggin' gospel number! 'Tender' is also seven minutes long, but it does have a melody - several, actually - and it does have a mood, and it is catchy and singalongable, and utterly believable from an emotional point of view. It's easily the most optimistic song on the album, and with the chorus going 'I'm waiting for that feeling, waiting for that feeling to come', you really get caught up in the excitement. And then the "micro-codas" going 'oh my baby, oh my oh why' succeed in a 'Hey Jude' kind of way. You'd never suspect Blur capable of finding this perfect folksy/gospelly groove, given the scoop on their past, but that's just it.

Then, after 'Bugman', a song that sounds like an unjustly forgotten outtake from Blur (and is also suspiciously derivative of Bowie's 'Suffraggette City' - give it a listen!), they continue with one more pop gem, the marvelous, if a bit monotonous, 'Coffee & TV'. Maybe it's also a little bit overlong, but it might just feature the greatest Blur chorus of all time. When Albarn goes 'so give me coffee & TV, be history', it's a brief moment of absolute uncompromised pop bliss, of the kind that are usually reserved for the Beatles and the Kinks. Which is, of course, pretty ironic, considering that Blur finally arrived at this moment on their "least pop" album of all time. But I guess fortune has to provide some compensation, eh? [Sidenote: oops, just got informed that it's actually Coxon who takes lead vocals on that track. Fuck it, gentlemen, what's up with all this "guest lead vocaling" stuff? Either have two entirely different voices or git out o' the kitchen!]

Out of the "purely atmospheric" stuff, I guess I'll have to single out 'Caramel' as the sole best composition. It's really well done, with a very melancholic and inobtrusive "wobbly" guitar line serving as an actual hook (sometimes it functions all by itself, sometimes they chant 'caramel' along with it), and when it comes to the "chaotic" part, it's not so much the usual wheee-whee-CHHBANG - grrr-grrr-grr-going guitars that attract me as it is the otherworldly vocal harmony arrangements; now here's one thing Pink Floyd never had the possibility to do. 'Trimm Trabb' is mainly interesting for its continuous development: how you think they can't make the sound any huger and then they actually make it huger. The melody itself isn't memorable, though. Oh, and I really like 'Trailerpark' with its "cool" (as in "cool weather") groove and hilarious 'I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones' refrain.

Oh yeah, one more thing that bugs me a bit is all these little bits and snippets of "outside" melodies they chuck at the end of half of the songs. It's not anything new - they'd had this tradition since way back when - but here they really overdo it, and only the longest of these ('Optigan 1') gets its own title, as well as closes the album and serves no particular purpose. One of these snippets makes 'B.L.U.R.E.M.I' look (in the tracklist) like a three-minute pop number when it's really a two-minute punk explosion. (With Blur impersonating chipmunks to sing the title, no less!).

Overall, this is no chef-d'oeuvre, and I'm not gonna make myself like cool by openly embracing all of it. Every time a talented guy (or gal... or bunch o' guys... or bunch o' gals...)... heck, every time a particular talented creative entity produces an album that has "worship me as a product of my author's deeply felt spirituality" written in Braill on the front cover, I get all herky-jerky about it. I really prefer Blur where I could enjoy these guys dicking around with creative guitar patterns over actual melodies and not feel too involved about it. But, while I do give a thumbs down to the record's conception, I do, at the same time, give it a thumbs up because every record with 'Tender', 'Bugman', 'Coffee & TV', 'Caramel', 'Trailerpark', and 'B.L.U.R.E.M.I.' on it deserves that.



Year Of Release: 2000

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Didja know these guys rip butt live? Although they rip it in exactly the way you'd expect people portrayed on the front sleeve to rip it.


Track listing: 1) She's So High; 2) Girls And Boys; 3) To The End; 4) End Of A Century; 5) Stereotypes; 6) Charmless Man; 7) Beetlebum; 8) M.O.R.; 9) Tender; 10) No Distance Left To Run.

Now, first of all, let's get it out of the way: I don't make classic-style reviews for compilations. Nosir, not my problem it ain't. Ain't my problem if these Greatest Hits had one totally new song ('Music Is My Radar') on it. Forget it, I'm not even gonna tell you if it's good or not. It's not my problem. If I tell you it's good or if I tell you it sucks, that would mean I'm not just reviewing a compilation, but that I'm actually rating it! No no no, I'm not doing these things. Greatest hits are for douchebags. And if you don't buy the entire Grand Funk Railroad catalog, you are a douchebag. (Although if you do, you're a double douchebag, so let's just not mention that band any more).

So what am I doing? I am reviewing the second half of this package. Now, it's not my problem if in most parts of the world and in most periods of the Neozoic era it only comes as a one-CD package. My package, neatly archived within one solid chunk of CD-R (the one that says 'add one glass of boiling water, two spoons of vinegar and don't forget to scan the album cover'), contains two CDs, and the second one is a completely independent and self-sustainable collection of live performances, performed live by a Russian band called Rubl, who apparently only do Blur covers when they're playing. As a limited time offer, it was sheepishly snucked on to unsuspecting British audiences, who apparently mistook this band for the real Blur and quickly proceeded to leave a double amount of money in the bank accounts of greedy record companies. Fools! Obviously, this can't be the real Blur. I mean, we have all seen the real Blur, haven't we? They just don't like to be photoed together. So one band member is stuck on the cover of Leisure, two on the cover of Parklife, and one on 13. Now look at these four guys and tell me if there's anything in common. Rubbish. There isn't. In fact, the one in the lower right corner is me. With dyed hair. The other three - I have no idea.

Anyway, whoever these guys are, the fact is they're an awesome live band, and somehow they have this amazing knack for making Blur material come alive on stage. Rumours have it that all the material has been recorded at Wembley in December '99, and it is interesting how the album was structured: chronologically, making sort of a "Live Blur Retrospective", which is really not something you often see during live performances - in fact, the only precedent that comes to mind right now is the first half of Elton John's Here And There, where he also seemed to be 'telling the story of Elton John' through a set of chronologically ordered numbers. Of course, it does not mean that this was the real order of performances, but I'll never know that without further research on Blur's live performances, and I really hate researching unimportant things. In any case, here are my complaints for the setlist:

a) Much too short. What's that, forty-five minutes? Gimme a break. This is a friggin' CD, we're not in the Seventies any more. Don't tell me they hired Wembley Arena to play a forty-five minute set, I won't believe you anyway. Were they stoned during the rest of the set or what?

b) Nothing from MLIR. That's way below self-offense. I know the band members themselves hold a weird grudge towards their second album, but if you've written songs like 'For Tomorrow' and 'Chemical World' and then became disappointed in them (and it's a known fact they did perform songs off that album as late as 1996 - as witnessed by the tracklisting on the Japanese-only Live At Budokan album), wiping them out of your memory, you got one hell of a "quality control". Especially when...

c) insist upon finishing the live set with 'No Distance Left To Run'. It was a chunk of pretentious "look at me as I'm sticking this needle in my heart" drivel on 13 and it's even more so on here, since it's performed before a huge live audience. After nine stellar songs, this one is sure an anti-climax, to say the least. Of course, nobody agrees with me on this song anyway, but I don't care. Consider me a wilted old cynic. I like me well-written songs; the messy whining I can supply myself.

Other than that, this is a superb live album. Luckily, Blur aren't superbly polished (although some polish always helps) when they go into the studio, so within this rough live setting only a few minor nuances are lost - such as the moody French whispering in 'To The End', for instance. But Coxon proves himself quite nimble, capable of playing 'lead-over-rhythm' when necessary (listen to him doing the solo bit on 'Tender', for instance), and Albarn makes sure that he actually sing all the material, not just mumble it. 'She's So High', the only memory of "older days", is, in fact, an improvement over the studio version - done in a much more gruff and at the same time stately way.

Audience interaction - a thing that usually works well but doesn't usually translate all that well onto live albums - is kept to a minimum, and most of it is on 'Beetlebum', where everybody supposedly sings along to the slow-moving verses and Damon lets The People actually take over an entire line. Although, to be fair and frank, every time he opens his mouth in between songs, I wish he didn't - this nerd par excellence can't even get the sacral phrase 'do you want some more?' sound right. Or maybe this phrase just doesn't seem right after such a toothless, charming piece of Britpop fluff as 'Charmless Man', I dunno. The 'oi oi oi oi oi' "warming up" on 'Girls And Boys' also irks me the wrong way, although apart from this little peculiarity, it's easily the album's main highlight. Or maybe the main highlight could be 'Tender' where, true to the song's nature, Blur lead the audience in a Heyjudean chant, just the right thing in the context of an arena-rock show.

All in all, this is a powerful little piece of plastic, and it does make me slightly sorry about having missed Blur's Moscow shows... then again, this was a Coxon-less Blur already, which softens the blow, and besides, they will return, if not now, then in twenty years time, when they will be using Moscow clubs as the last resort. Like Uriah Heep or the Scorpions. It's actually strange that they never had a full-blown non-limited release live album - they got enough drive and conviction to offer one proudly and defiantly, to everybody. But then again, I guess live albums just haven't been all that "cool" for all pop bands since at least the Eighties. We're still waiting for one from R.E.M., right? Are we? Or aren't we?



Year Of Release: 2003

Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

An album that refuses to make either reasonable sense or glorious nonsense.


Track listing: 1) Ambulance; 2) Out Of Time; 3) Crazy Beat; 4) Good Song; 5) On The Way To The Club; 6) Brothers And Sisters; 7) Caravan; 8) We've Got A File On You; 9) Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club; 10) Sweet Song; 11) Jets; 12) Gene By Gene; 13) Battery In Your Leg.

Dear Graham Coxon, I know you're somewhere out there sitting in your cool intellectual spectacles, maybe ripping the shite out of your guitar, pissed off at your former colleagues for squeezing you out of the band Formerly Known As Blur. Dear Graham, I don't know how it feels but supposedly it doesn't feel that bad considering you're free to put out solo albums at a rate faster than the average Frank Zappa one. Dear Graham, if you don't convince your asshole colleagues to let you back into the band, Blur is finished.

Because I am absolutely sure - had you been there to counteract some of the decisions taken, there's no way Think Tank would have turned out to be such a ridiculous mess as it now appears. It may be hard to imagine Radiohead as a guitarless band, but it's thrice as hard to imagine Blur put out a guitarless album. And no, that doesn't mean they don't have any guitars on there. Your old buddy, Damon Albarn, apparently took these duties up himself. Heavens be praised that he doesn't at least think of himself as a virtuoso - this would have been too much of an embarrassment. But apparently he just can't do anything interesting with that instrument unless it be 'Song 2'-like grungy bashathons ('Crazy Beat', 'We've Got A File On You') or something very very basic. Blur without the serious guitarwork is like Jethro Tull without the flute, like the Mothers of Invention without the horns and chimes, like Gong without the pot, like Britney Spears without the tits. Please come back.

Even worse, Stink Stank Stunk is an album that begins in no man's land, goes on in unknown directions and ends up in no place special. Fine, Damon, so the songs aren't memorable. So you've decided that the conception of "hook" is above you (I wonder what would've happened had the Beatles, at some time, taken the same decision). At the very least, give the record some fuckin' sense. Is it serious? Is it parodic? Is it postmodern? Is it emotional or is it sarcastic? Is it atmospheric or is it danceable? To the eyes, ears and nose of this reviewer it feels like a misfocused, confused mishmash of influences, where good ideas are so deeply drowned in bad ones that it's nearly impossible to get oriented. However weird they might have been, at least I can say that the self-titled album rocked your pants down and 13 could paint otherworldly pictures in your head - not to mention that both contained some well-written hook-oriented songs. Think Tank does nothing of the sort. Or, rather, it tries to do everything at the same time - but Blur are not the Beatles, certainly not without you, dear Graham, and so this is a miserable failure.

Well - that's what happens when you take too much time in between albums, I guess, and waste too much of it on swapping producers in mid-air (their relatively long period of working with Fatboy Slim finally ended in just two songs on the album produced by him, and, ironically, that was one of the reasons Coxon and Albarn split). Supposedly there were two "new" things to happen on this album: a heavier reliance on electronics and addition of "ethnic" influences. Maybe it was the critical success of Kid A that didn't let poor Damon sleep at night. In the end, the 'ethnic' influences are limited to just a couple of songs as well, and the reliance on electronics only downplays Blur's strong points.

It's pretty dang hard to discuss individual songs, because I don't remember too many of them. Surprisingly enough, the ballads, overall, made a better impression on me. 'Caravan' drags along in a tired, lazy, but not charmless way, with Albarn's vocals encoded so that they really sound like he 'feels the weight of it' - pretty gruesome, come to think of it, considering that's the overall impression of the album as a whole. If that song is not a dirge for the great band Blur, I don't know what is. 'On The Way To The Club' looks like a minor Blur outtake: dark, moody, with nice 'bubbly' keyboard and distorted guitar overdubs as Damon chants what is probably the record's most obvious hook ('I just wanna be darling with you...' - pretty simplistic, I'll admit, but I'd rather take the simplistic stuff on this record over everything else that gets in my way).

Yet even these decent songs get pushed around by dreck like 'Brothers And Sisters' - a thoroughly generic "trip-hop gospel" number with a very embarrassing chorus. Who does that guy think he is, Curtis Mayfield? Al Green? Loser. The Fatboy Slim-produced single 'Crazy Beat' may be sorta fun on first listen, but eventually the intrusive "yeah yeah yeah yeah YEAH" chorus leaves me no choice but to call it "annoying", a word that I really usually reserve only for the utmost cases. Some disgruntled fans went as far as to call 'Crazy Beat' the band's "updated" take on 'Song 2', but 'Song 2' was at least funny, catchy, and one minute shorter. One hell of an "update", really. Or, to pick at another place, what the hell is 'Gene By Gene'? Is it just a good opportunity to try out an untrivial time signature and some freshly recorded sound effects? I don't get it.

I do, however, have a soft spot for the album's lengthiest groove, 'Jets'. It sounds really stupid and monotonous, but perhaps that's part of its charm. The mammoth bassline of Alex James is probably the best thing about it - anybody could have played it, but not anybody could have thought of it. That part in the middle when the 'melody' is augmented by what sounds like deep earth rumblings can, in fact, be considered scary, and feels awesome when you listen to it on headphones with the bass levels turned up.

In fact, the more I think of it, the more obvious it becomes that the album's biggest problem is lack of discipline. It's so dreadfully disorganized, chaotic, and poorly flowing that picking out the good spots ('On The Way To The Club', 'Caravan', parts of 'Jets', parts of 'Out Of Time', that one little beautiful moment on 'Battery In Your Leg', etc., etc.) becomes a terrible chore; as much as I respect the band (at least, the full band), I have not the slightest desire to spend hours and hours of time patching it together in my mind. In a way, it just proves the very first thing that I began this page with: that Blur's main advantage over their rivals was having two talented individuals. Now that there's only one left, that's not enough.

That may be enough to earn them some freshly-gathered indie cred, of course, but I'm clean here, having never subscribed to no indie-rock manifesto. I did read quite a few gushing opinions on how Blur are getting better and more "experimental", but let's cut the crap here and now: Think Tank is nowhere near an 'experimental' album, and neither were Blur and 13. Had they been released twenty years earlier, they might have been "experimental". Any 'unusual' effects/gimmicks/melodies used on here are no more 'experimental' than your basic five-chord pop melody that simply happens to actually be written and not ripped off an earlier one. The truth is, for Blur to make a really experimental album is hardly more possible than for Madonna to guest star on a King Crimson album. What is possible is to bring a little bit more order into their heads, apologize to Mr Coxon, and get back to making music that makes sense. Come to think of it, maybe it's time to do a sequel to The Great Escape.



Represented here by the career of Signor Graham Coxon - for the moment.


(released by: GRAHAM COXON)

Year Of Release: 1998
Overall rating =

An ode to spontaneousness or a case of having too little spare time on one's hands?

Best song: I WISH

Track listing: 1) That's All I Wanna Do; 2) Where'd You Go; 3) In A Salty Sea; 4) A Day Is Far Too Long; 5) R U Lonely; 6) I Wish; 7) Hard & Slow; 8) Me You We Two; 9) Waiting; 10) Who The Fuck; 11) Mornin' Blues.

Maybe it's just that Graham Coxon had so many ideas in his little head that he was afraid his best buddy wouldn't let him use all of them up on the band's next record. (And right he would be, too!). It's the only speculative explanation for the fact that he took advantage of that one week off the regular touring schedule in mid-1998 to record his solo debut. Because otherwise, what could be the explanation for making your solo debut so short, so monotonous, and essentially sounding like a bunch of raw demos recorded way before you'd get any money to actually buy yourself better recording equipment? Not to mention so baffling and puzzling for the majority of your fans?

Oh, right. We have somehow forgotten that Graham Coxon had this strange passion for a distant land called 'magic America' with all the magic people like Steve Malkmus and Kim Gordon cooking up weird magic music for the little green people from Mars (because all the non-magic people prefer to listen to the Backstreet Boys, you know). Now among the magic people, it is considered cool to release songs that sound like they were written only halfway before the writer went to the bathroom and never returned, and recorded way before the times of Julius Caesar despite severe problems with blackouts back in those uncivilised times. It is sometimes called "lo-fi", sometimes "avantgarde", sometimes "indie", and still sometimes "that underproduced feedback crap", mostly depending on the inner qualities of the person in charge of the judgement. For a more detailed description, check out your average Pitchfork review.

And it just so happened - I call it luck, although John Calvin might call it predestination - that Graham Coxon's passion for all things Other Music-related somehow coincided with his having just a few days of freedom on his hand. Now if he wanted to write and record a classical concerto, you know, things would probably have taken a bad turn, but not so with Other Music, which, if not written spontaneously and with as little care as possible, eventually just expires without guarantee. As a result, The Sky Is Too High is that fine case of an obvious throwaway that, with certain people, stands the chance of being proclaimed a masterpiece. And "certain people" - why, that actually includes me! I declare it a masterpiece!

Well, okay, not a masterpiece. (The guy is still alive, let's wait and see). But I like it. The songs are so fabulously raw that they often can't even be recognized as Coxon-creations; most of this stuff yearns for feedback and grease, but ends up being acoustic. Only three of the eleven songs actually feature feedback a-plenty (plus a fourth one is templated to sound like old crunchy Chicago blues or something), so if you're expecting Graham to kick ass, retranslate your expectations elsewhere. Almost none of the songs are well-produced. In addition, an entire album's worth of tunes sung by Graham Coxon may also turn out to be a test on tolerance; with Coxon always occupying the place of Dave Davies next to Albarn's Ray, there'd always been a reason that guy was kept in the background. Please keep all dogs at a safe distance when the 'I ju-u-u-ust wa-a-a-a-ant to be with you-u-u-u' chalkboard fingernailing comes in with the first track's chorus, and don't try this at home yourself; the only saving grace is that this happens to be one of the few feedback-drenched songs and the vocals are almost inaudible (not for the dogs, though, they aren't).

The classic phrase that has now to be uttered is: "but all of the album's ridiculous curiosities only ADD to its ultimate charm". And I will say it, at the risk of never being offered a table at Wilson & Alroy's again. (Not that I ever have been offered one, but then, I've never complained about it either). The album keeps walking this thin line between being "unlistenable due to horrible noise" and "unlistenable due to too few notes", but the melodies always happen to be getting right down to your (okay, my) heart. One of the major inspirations certainly has to be Nick Drake's Pink Moon, but, at the risk of being spat on by people with exquisitely raffinated taste all over the planet, I'll say that these melodies are - occasionally - even better. 'Waiting', for instance, employs, like, two notes over its near-three minutes, which is even less than in Nick Drake's 'Horn', but the lazy, melancholic vocal melody that accompanies these two notes makes perfect sense. First comes 'wa-a-a-a-aiting for my friends, wa-a-a-a-a-aiting for my friends' - the hypnotic nonchalant thesis, and then 'and I don't want no one to know' - the stern warning-like antithesis. It's cute fun. Maybe one verse too long, but fun.

Overall, the atmosphere is quite like the one on 'Coffee & TV': melancholy with a tinge of snottiness, but definitely not of the sarcastic variety, sad, but introspective rather than directly depressive. And while Coxon is absolutely nowhere near the finest singer on Earth, in his defense we should say that he's the first to have realized that, which explains his constant 'hiding' deep in the mix as well as "mumbling" through the lyrics rather than attempting gorgeous vocal harmonies. A classic example, and a very recommendable song, is 'R U Lonely' - which could have been written by anybody from Pearl Jam to Radiohead, but happened to be written by Graham and thus imbued with his own personality.

'I Wish' was culled from the album as a single - probably the best choice, because the single has to be loud and captivating, and the only other choice was a song entitled 'Who The Fuck', so that was probably out of the question, I guess. Amazingly, some Blur fans do not seem to think much of it. But it really is very typical: based on a simplistic guitar pattern that nevertheless cuts deep in your memory, and on minimal vocal twists that command all of your attention without leaving parts of it diverted by other stuff. In other words, yeah, it ain't prog-rock, but then again you don't count the hooks in 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' by a dozen, either. Besides, the feedback bursts which eventually start coming in feel right at home here, unlike on 'That's All I Wanna Do', where all the noise's only function is to make you realize the song has a good melody about fifteen listens later than otherwise.

The rest of the tunes are pretty hard to describe individually and probably don't deserve it, really, although each one has at least one (usually just one) hook in the chorus (if it has a chorus) and that the melodies, despite using as few chords as possible, don't ever overlap. The only song, bar 'I Wish', that sounds really "finished", though, is 'A Day Is Far Too Long', and even that one could have used some extra clothing. Its monotonous coda does set the scene for all those semi-mesmerizing, semi-boring passages on Blur's 13, though.

Maybe someday Coxon will get a yearning to return to the album and re-record it with richer arrangements (and maybe even better vocals?). This is dubious, however; seeing the insane rate at which the guy has begun to churn out solo records once liberated from the Blur yoke, I doubt he'll ever get the urge to stop and look back. As such, The Sky Is Too High just isn't too "relistenable", except for a certain breed of little green people. And yet all of the songs on it are good (with the possible exception of that pseudo-Chicago 'Mornin' Blues' oddity, seemingly thrown in at the last minute and feeling absolutely alien in the hands of a guy like Graham), be it "theoretically" or "practically". One really uplifting thing about Coxon is that, although he has been influenced by the indie scene, he doesn't like weirdness for the sake of weirdness; you may like this record or dislike it, but you'll hardly be in a position to shrug your shoulders and say stuff like 'I don't get it. Am I so much behind the times or have the times simply gone too whacky?'. In other words, only little green people will listen to it repeatedly, but everybody will be able to pay it a little respect. And that - very roughly - translates into an overall 11 rating.


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