A mixtape for winter’s end, spring’s stirring, and the reïmagination of rock. Continue reading Frühlings Erwachen
The vision of London dreamt up by Blur has always resembled to me that of Martin Amis’s invention. To both these artists, London is not just the locus of worthwhile stories, but also the point of departure for stranger places. Blur’s final pair of songs reassure me that this was no illusion. Continue reading Dan Abnormal: State of England
Another by-product of my reading Nick Kent’s 1970s memoir, Apathy For The Devil, was my being nudged into digging out Roxy Music‘s Country Life album, which Kent really digs. Bryan Ferry was, in Kent’s eyes, a bit of a hero of social mobility (whereas Kent was pretty much its anti-hero). More importantly, Country Life is—I now realise—a truly influential album in the progression of British art rock and glam. You can here those music-hall and oompah flourishes weaving their way into Parklife-era Blur; similarly, Ferry’s voice must have been a major reference point for Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos.
Country Life opens with “The Thrill Of It All”, an unexpectedly rousing, gutsy song from the ordinarily-louche band. There are car-chase strings, double-kicks on the bass drum, and nimble-fingered bass-work from John Gustafson. In a nod to the football-terrace anthems of the future, there’s also a good deal of wordless chanting. If only Bryan Ferry knew his handiwork would someday inspire this.
“And I heard of that Japanese girl, who jumped into the volcano—
Was she trying to make it back,
Back into the womb of the world?”—Beck, “Volcano”
- Pink Floyd — One of These Days
- Shy Child — Disconnected
- Yo La Tengo — Saturday
- Blur — The Universal
- Kanye West — Who Will Survive in America
- TV On The Radio — Love Dog
- Spoon — Out Go The Lights
- Cut Copy — Strangers In The Wind
- Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Midnight Man
- J Dilla — Last Donut of the Night
- Pulp — Sunrise
Hot Chip – “Slush”;
Martin Amis – London Fields;
Blur – “No Distance Left To Run”.
Sounding like a cross between “Night Fever” and the Knight Rider theme tune, the lead single for the forthcoming Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, is a seriously catchy slice of music. “Stylo”, as it is titled, is also a star-studded affair, boasting some fairly unhinged wailing from a chap called Bobby Womack, and a rap at the end that appears to be telephoned in by Mos Def. And, despite my rather cynical tone, I rather like it.
Damon Albarn treads very gently over “Stylo”. Yes, the first verse is occupied by his wistful mumblings, but beyond that, it really sounds nothing like any of his previous work. It doesn’t even resemble a Gorillaz song. Entirely synthetic in its instrumentation, “Stylo” is a one-idea song that’s probably as addictive as crystal meth, and, let’s hope, not too representative of the album as a whole. Much as I’m enjoying it, I refuse to believe Albarn would seriously contemplate making a whole album of similar material – more likely, “Stylo” is a palate cleanser before Plastic Beach makes its entrance, replete with substantially more weirdness.
I say all this, and then I hear Bobby Womack literally crawling through my speakers with his deranged intrusions, and I think this song is utterly brilliant and terrifying at the same time.
Last November, when Damon Albarn announced that he and Graham Coxon had patched up their differences and were re-forming Blur in its classic arrangement, I was filled with apprehension. The last few years have been packed with members of the old guard re-forming for one final hurrah, and with mixed results. Led Zeppelin’s one-off benefit concert at the O2 suggested that while there was still more than enough vigour in the band, the practicalities of a real, lasting reunion were beyond them. When Richard Ashcroft welcomed Nick McCabe back into The Verve, I expected thrilling sonic fireworks on a par with their best work – instead, I was left sorely disappointed by the meandering, fleeting Forth.
The prospect of Blur re-uniting was a beguiling prospect. In the intervening years since their disbandment, Albarn had circumnavigated the globe with open ears and busy hands, documenting his travels and learnings through multiple musical projects, from the paranoid cartoon hip-hop of Gorillaz, to the lilting, mystical and beautiful Chinese-opera-cum-musical of Monkey: Journey To The West. Coxon, meanwhile, had become increasingly basic and spartan in his musical exploits, releasing a series of good, but not staggeringly so, solo albums, taking in a breadth of influences, but never really showing off the accidental beauty of his guitar-work that previous Blur albums had featured. Alex James, he of champagne bottle, mirror and razor blade, had fled to the countryside, there to busy himself running a farm and making cheese, and writing all about it in a variety of publications. Finally, there was Dave Rowntree: always the quiet one, now the budding politician. It was only in the wave of press interviews given in the weeks leading up to Hyde Park that we were to discover just how busy he had been, with the astute drummer revealing a law degree, solicitor’s training, social work, political activism.
Somehow, from this myriad divergent post-Blur activities, these four pop icons of the nineties were supposed to roll back the years and wind up as a rock band, putting aside their respective priorities for a few months of historic gigs, and the appetising prospect of something more. I was slightly troubled, I must confess, all the more so because in my lengthy study of Blur’s œuvre, nothing had once suggested to me that their varied sonic palette would actually translate to a particularly energetic live performance. Still, I was among the first to commit to their cause, dutifully buying a ticket to their Friday night show in Hyde Park, London.
Hyde Park, Friday lunchtime. The parched field is already filling up; the wafting odours of burger meat, vinegar and hot dogs are already permeating the air; the stage, clumsily bathed in a tangle of lights, electrical cabling and amplifiers. On one side of the central pavilion is draped a map of Greater London; on the other, one of Great Britain. In the latter stages of their career, Blur may have embraced all manner of American and African influences (as borne out in today’s choice of support acts), but here, today, it is clear that the mood is very British, very suburban, very much rooted in the music-hall stomp of Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife. Gangs of the Colchester massif quaff plastic bottles of beer; young people are few and far between.
Before Blur make their long-awaited entrance, we are treated to four hours of wondrous, diverse music, beginning with the cheeky racket of Deerhoof, perennial cult concerns over in the States. Initially, the crowd react ambivalently, unsure of what to make of a sound that is part math rock, part raucous indie, and certainly not fleshed out by discernible lyrics. It is only when frontwoman Satomi Matsuzaki begins her wild flailing and dancing, and revels in interacting with other band-members, props and instruments, that the crowd respond with good-natured applause and cheers.
Next up is current chart-merchant Florence And The Machine. Florence Welch looks undeniably stunning in rather floaty, ethnic garb, and her voice is suitably melodramatic and moody, like a more affected, less precious Natasha Khan. The music too bears some resemblance to that of Bat For Lashes, though more sparkly and poppy. Most of the crowd identify her key singles and enact a mass sing-along; I, through my rejection of mainstream radio, remain reasonably unconvinced and oblivious of her fame and hype.
Then, real excitement greets the entrance of Amadou & Mariam, their live reputation cemented by numerous festival appearances. They are predictably charming, and their music creates quite a stir, combining elements of traditional Malian music with circular blasts of funk and the tense friction of the blues. In the crowd, a party is brewing. We love Amadou’s sonorous voice and his inimitable stage persona; we can’t help but be won over by Mariam’s effortless cool; and the couple’s backing band is pretty talented too. Songs new and old sound fresh and immediate, and the guitar solos are pretty spectacular.
Finally, Vampire Weekend, touching down in the UK solely for this performance, deliver a well-paced set, interspersing most of their debut album with a couple of new songs (one of which is really too high-pitched to be the sing-along that Ezra Koenig desires; the other is slightly marred by an over-zealous, bottle-throwing crowd) and old favourite Boston. Musically, they’re inch-perfect; personality-wise, there’s something amiss – but when the frantic riff of A-Punk kicks in, nobody really cares.
Then, at exactly quarter past eight, the crowd goes relatively ape-shit as the pomp and circumstance of The Debt Collector blares over the sound system, and on stroll all four members of Blur, re-united at last. Albarn and Rowntree favour the Andy Murray-baiting Fred Perry polo shirt look; James appears to have walked out of the gutter; as ever, Coxon exudes an understated geeky cool. Almost immediately, with only a few words of introduction, the band breaks into a soaring rendition of debut single She’s So High. From there on, there is very little let-up, as the band deliver spirited and impassioned hit after hit. Alex James’ bass benefits from a good mix on the PA, showing off just how fluid and quick-witted his playing has always been, especially on tracks like Tracy Jacks and Badhead. Coxon’s guitar-work, meanwhile, is blistering, and makes all 55,000 adoring fans realise at once what has been missing from British music during the last ten years. On Girls And Boys, he unleashes a torrent of flange; on There’s No Other Way, he alternates between the bluesy melody and a crazed wash of feedback and distortion.
By the time the seventh song, Beetlebum, stammers in on a jerky rhythm of guitar stabs, it is clear that, far from sounding flat, tied down to backing tracks, or trying to educate the crowd with a selection of arty album tracks, Blur seem newly re-invigorated, more energetic and meaningful than before, and perfectly content to roll out the hits, be they emotionally leering (as in the case of Country House, still as ridiculous as ever) or reflective (like Coxon’s still-charming Coffee & TV). Each song is delivered with real feeling and maximum crowd reaction: in the case of Tender, the gospel-tinged and emotionally raw anthem is transformed into a slightly ironic terrace-chant, as 55,000 people celebrate the tragedy of lyrics like “Oh my baby, oh my baby; Oh why, oh why?” and “Come on, come on, come on; get through it!” So many of Blur’s greatest songs are nostalgic and heartfelt in a rather doomed and miserable way, but tonight, it would appear that we are just as happy to revel in unbearable sadness as we are to sing for hedonistic youths on holiday in Greece.
There are a few surprise inclusions too – Trimm Trabb is as squalling and experimental as ever, and collapses in extraordinary style amidst a trademark Coxon guitar meltdown; Oily Water starts out as a slightly baggy-influenced pop song but builds into a wall of shoegaze, all shimmering guitars and wailing backing vocals. After the main set concludes with the breathtaking, heart-wrenching This Is A Low (still my favourite song of the Britpop époque), the band kickstart the first encore with the dual assault of Popscene and Advert, both coming off successfully as breakneck punk numbers. Perhaps thankfully, the crowd having already battered each other to oblivion during Parklife and Sunday Sunday, Song 2 is appreciated mainly aurally, despite the band’s most famous two minutes and two seconds of alt-rock swagger being played in characteristically violent, cock-sure style.
A final encore showcases all three sides of the band: first, underground fan favourite Death Of A Party chugs along in chilling, carnival-esque art rock fashion. Then, basking in the warm summer night of London, an extended version of For Tomorrow is supplemented by a brass trio and a gospel quartet (both groups flit on and off the stage throughout the evening, adding texture and emotion to many of the band’s songs) that depicts perfectly the way in which so much of the band’s raison d’être is rooted in a Kinks-ian vision of British idyll. Finally, the stately and suitably tragic The Universal finishes off a wonderful and emotional evening on a cascade of strings, brass, fretboard fireworks and those dread-future lyrics, hinting at a doomed utopia.
Throughout the gig, Albarn’s banter with the crowd sums up perfectly the mood of the band and their music. By turns witty, emotional and anecdotal, I’m sure his words are lost on at least half of the crowd. But in those gem-like nuggets of conversation, he reveals his love of the city, his fears about the future, and his essential attachment to this brilliant band who, among many things, provided the template of the perfect pop song throughout much of my youth. There is no doubt that there are live bands who employ more trickery; who create more of a visual spectacle; or who engage the audience in an enveloping fug of sonic experimentation – indeed, I have witnessed many such gigs. However, for a truly historic gig that released the inner punk spirit in thousands of thirty-somethings, and touched the hearts of many thousands more, Blur did not need all these gimmicks of their contemporaries. Throughout their career they have written an arsenal of great songs, and at many times these have been fashioned into extraordinary albums, but here, on stage, it is the ubiquity of them – in a similar way to the hits of Michael Jackson – that wins us over. Here are the songs that have documented life in the nineties, brought to life before our eyes, in another decade, but still just as relevant, and just as fantastic. To echo the sentiments of Damon Albarn, I thank every music industry mind who hassled and cajoled and teased Albarn and Coxon into giving into their better interests, and re-forming one of the great songwriting partnerships in British history. It was a blast.
After five weeks of idle procrastination at university (exams were over; the weather was good, Central London was there for the taking), I have arrived back in the suburbs and am primed for blogging action. In true Nick Cave style, my intention is to be at my desk every morning at 9, ready to fill up my timesheet with a whole shed-load of posts. In all probability, because I’m not even 10% as cool as Nick Cave, this plan will fail. But it won’t be for want of trying.
I will try and elaborate on the following things:
- Blur’s Friday night Hyde Park extravaganza;
- Synecdoche, New York;
- Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
- Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
- Spoon – Got Nuffin
- Future Of The Left – Travels With Myself And Another
That’s a whole lot of jazz.
Continuing with the theme of unlikely favourite albums by bands, today I bring you the surprising admission that my favourite Blur album is… not Parklife, Modern Life Is Rubbish, or even the underrated eponymous Blur, but 1999’s moody and introspective 13. Recorded in a pre-millennial, post-Britpop world, 13 is an emotionally raw and musically exhilarating account of broken relationships and a dissatisfaction with the prevalent chart trends.
It is worth noting that, in his excellent account of the Britpop era, The Last Party, journalist John Harris locates the creative high watermark of the time as being “This Is A Low” – the totally un-music-hall-stomp closer to Parklife, which channelled a very English sense of nostalgia (a relationship, described through the metaphor of the shipping forecast, of all things) through a musical style that hovers halfway between The Kinks, Neil Young, and early Pink Floyd. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Blur would go on to make, in my opinion, their finest work when they intentionally severed all ties with the parodic soap opera that was Britpop, and ventured further into the songwriting toolbox that they undoubtedly possessed.
13 is undoubtedly a difficult listen, and yet it begins on a false promise, with the strangely uplifting gospel-backed “Tender”, which grows slowly and serenely from a wistful and lonely music box, through a processional guitar figure, into an achingly weepy epic. It is little wonder that, years later, Damon Albarn would get all emotional when performing the song in the absence of Graham Coxon. The various twists and turns the song takes in its backing instrumentation seem to depict an external fragility and precariousness of the band, which peels away to reveal a rock-solid core of a song underneath – the perfect image for the band on this album, as they weave in and out of ambient soundscapes, scratchy noise rock, meandering krautrock, under the who-knows-how-watchful eye of producer William Orbit.
Where Blur suggested a band in flux, throwing themselves into a genre (lo-fi American alternative) for the sake of being different, without fully believing in the cause, 13 shows the quartet completing their mastery of a range of different styles, each suffused with a typically dark, wry humour that would come to characterise the band far more than any one sonic palette.
The remainder of 13 is unwelcomingly beautiful, in an alien and inhospitable way – again, a true reflection of Albarn’s mental state, pitched as he was into a painful break-up and a getaway to Iceland. Songs like “Bugman”, “Swamp Song” and “B.L.U.R.E.M.I” are rightfully angry and confused and goofy; others, like “Coffee & TV” and “Mellow Song”, betray a love of affectionate melodies and storytelling.
Then, halfway through the album, things shift up a gear in the melancholy stakes, with the sonically dazzling “Battle” heralding a total immersion in sadness through samples and beats. “Trailer Park”, with its jarring, perplexing refrain of “I lost my baby to the Rolling Stones” (because to me, Blur were always much more similar in scope and ambition to the Beatles), takes unexpected diversions through sonar pings and industrial grind. “Caramel” emerges from a fog of organ and intricate guitar, and takes on a new life as a Can-style krautrock journey – feedback and an otherworldly palette of noises ricochet between the channels, held down by the insistent drumming of Dave Rowntree. In the last of these weird-out experiments, “Trimm Trabb” morphs from a mellow, house-piano meandering into a knuckle-grating freak-out, with Albarn’s affected vocals resembling a man gargling with treacle and acid.
The whole beast dissolves into an uneasy, fragmented chorus of seemingly unconnected vocals, which leads beautifully into the traditional Blur-faux-album-closer of “No Distance Left To Run”, which sounds like “This Is A Low”, driven to suicide, not on the “white cliffs of Dover”, but on some distant, alien shore, where the sky is crimson and the water is salty with tears. Whereas Parklife‘s closer was regimented into a 4/4 beat, here, the band favour a looser-limbed waltz, allowing greater space between the sounds. Albarn’s lyrical chops were never in any doubt: here, on 13, the band’s music is allowed to take on freer expressions and more wide-reaching influences, to dazzling effect. As “Optigan 1″‘s lonely carousel-ride music box shuffle winds away into oblivion, we are left with the faint echo of an album that perfectly captures the band’s sentiments: sorrow, emotional turmoil, and the desire to push the boundaries of pop music just as much as The Beatles did several decades previously.
When I first heard 13, I thought I was hearing Blur’s very own Kid A, but released to an uninterested world a year earlier. To this day, I still think that’s an image worth thinking about. Sprung upon the public at a time when we were more interested in the private lives of the Spice Girls than the immersive musical statement that is the album, 13 was destined to fade quickly from the charts and enter only in the conversations of critics. But to continue to ignore it would be to do it a great disservice, for in amidst the unfamiliar experimentation and bizarre sonic assaults, there is an absolute pot of gold full of richly rewarding, emotionally complex songs that anyone can enjoy.
In what way is it a better album than Parklife? Purely for the reason that here, Blur stopped writing about the world outside, and started telling us about themselves. Incredibly, far beyond the witty social commentary of their earlier works, hearing a man confess his bleak state of mind is wonderfully enriching, more so than hearing about a civil servant-cum-golfing fanatic.
According to the king of music news exclusive scoops, the NME, Blur have at last announced the full line-ups for their Hyde Park gigs this July. Excitingly, I’ve managed to secure a ticket for the Friday date, where I will be treated to the delightful strains of Vampire Weekend, Amadou & Mariam, Florence And The Machine, and Deerhoof. This news mostly makes me extremely happy, though it does mean I’ll be obliged to get to Hyde Park insanely early on the day. But, happily, it’s the final day of my university term, so a short hop to the other side of London shouldn’t be too taxing.
Vampire Weekend: I absolutely adore their eponymous debut. It’s a glorious celebration of life as a young person (albeit a highly privileged young person) in America; a witty and musically enchanting depiction of campus life. Almost a year into my degree, I can safely confirm that this album most sums up what university is about. As a live act, I’m slightly intrigued by the band. They’ve overcome the limitations of the a four-piece taking on compositions full of polyrhythm and counterpoint and string arrangements reasonably well, bouncing off the irrepressible energy of frontman Ezra Koenig (owner of the coolest first name ever invented) and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij (owner of the most unwieldy name ever considered fit for usage). I think they will fit in pretty well with the audience, particularly since they’ve wooed numerous crowds on the festival circuit last year.
Amadou & Mariam: A very good friend saw the Malian couple up in Scotland earlier on in the year, and, having closely observed Amadou’s dextrous guitar playing through many years of watching Jools Holland, I think they will be pretty special. It only helps matters that their latest album, Welcome To Mali, is currently one of the highest scoring albums of all time on Metacritic, and that this accolade is entirely deserved. Of course, it’s not that surprising to see them here – as with Vampire Weekend, they channel the spirit of African music into a pop setting, and they’ve worked with Damon Albarn through the Afrika Express coalition. He even produced bits of Welcome To Mali.
Florence And The Machine: The one band on the whole list of support acts about whom I know very little. Then again, she came out pretty highly on the BBC’s Sound of 2009 industry poll… which is probably a mixed blessing. I would guess that this was Coxon’s choice – she’s a vivacious solo artist with a bit of a soul vibe, apparently.
Deerhoof: Famous in blogosphere circles, no? They’ve been around for a number of years, with a huge back catalogue to choose from; their frontwoman is a very excitable Japanese lady; their music destroys genres and is generally great fun.
I think this probably makes this gig a better value day’s entertainment than most British festivals. Possibly even better value than cocaine?
Only kidding on the last comparison; poor taste.