Tag Archives: britpop

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.

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Sex and violence, melody and silence

Just before I went travelling I was given a Kindle as a birthday present—ideal, given my voracious reading habits, and its 3G, which was a boon when I couldn’t face looking for internet cafés in Mexico. It’s great, but it’s totally changed my life as a commuter. On my way into work, I want to read, and I want to listen to music, and I’d ideally like to do both at the same time. The right way of doing this is to pick a sophisticated book, and team it with an album which is similar in mood but entirely vacuous in terms of lyrical content—or, better still, is instrumental.

My current source of literary fixation is Hardy’s Jude The Obscure, and I think I’ve found a suitable soundtrack for its tale of an outsider’s endless struggle against social conventions and the outrageous turns of Fortune.

With their bombastic, psychedelic and cloud-scraping brand of Britpop, The Verve are so much a part of the accepted 1990s canon that we don’t often step back and consider the true import of their music. Unlike with their extended contemporaries (Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede, for the uninitiated), no one really thought to imitate them at the time—probably because any kind of extension on their themes would have come across as faintly ridiculous.There were tons of Britpop also-rans (hands up, who remembers Shed Seven and Menswe@r?) but none of them dared encroach on The Verve’s musical bacchanalia.

Against the sturm und drang of their music—guitarist Nick McCabe in particular really knew how to coat the songs in five layers of sonic treacle—Richard Ashcroft belted out generally context-free lyrics which expounded on universal themes which, in the hands of a lesser ego, frequently results in the most awful kind of faceless nonsense (see The Killers, Coldplay). Just look at the song titles. “So It Goes”, “Space And Time”, “One Day”: Ashcroft truly was a master generalist, capable of uniting every man on the side of his tormented everyman persona.

In this context, the christening of their purported masterpiece as Urban Hymns should be treated with indifference. The songs on it are no more urban than they are suburban, rural, arctic, mangrove or tundra. These are songs that speak to the universe, and its celestial bodies therein.

You can do cheesy things, as long as they’re original cheesy things. So The Verve got away with the sweeping, narrative-free truisms, the soaring string arrangements, and the freewheeling, slightly baggy rhythms. In fact, they did more than get away with these things: they practically invented them, and it took a good few years for trash to imitate art. You need a healthy suspension of disbelief to enjoy The Verve at their most hokey (“History”, “On Your Own”), and so too with their more meandering compositions (“Catching The Butterfly”, “Brainstorm Interlude”, most of their first album). But if they catch you at the right moment, when you’re in the right frame of mind, you’ll be floored.

[DISCLAIMER: None of this applies to their “comeback” album, Forth, which really is terrible]

Jarvis Cocker – Discosong (Pilooski Mix)

Shame on the Mercury judges for not nominating Jarvis Cocker’s refreshingly urgent Further Complications. While you digest that lamentation, you can also frazzle your brain by listening to the recent Pilooski remix of the album’s closing track, “You’re In My Eyes (Discosong)”, which is highly recommended, and is free.

The acclaimed French electronic artist re-imagines the song as a hushed, slithering dance track, with a lobotomising bass-line complemented by a crisp beat and inventive whistling percussive noises that leap out unexpectedly. Virtually nothing remains from the original – even the vocals are tampered with and re-ordered, occasionally warped into minor explosions that blurt out of the speakers. About two minutes in, a strange, whining, groaning synth hovers perilously between the channels, and the distant chiming of a guitar whispers through. A minute later, there is a wonderfully unexpected breakdown with a sweep across a harp, after which the rest of the instruments cut back in with greater intensity.

The whole remix is beautifully crafted, charting the mournful depths of the song in an insistent, nagging manner. By the end, as the harp winds down to a whooshing gurgle, there is absolute closure. It’s a remix that evokes the very best of former DFA remixes, in particular the closing minutes of their liberal interpretation of Gorillaz’s “Dare”, and it bodes extremely well for Pilooski’s remix of LCD Soundsystem’s 45:33, due to be released on September 14 as part of the aptly titled 45:33 Remixes.

I got trimm trabb, like all the flash boys have.

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.

Vendredi à Hyde Park

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.

Put the crazies on the street, give them guns and feed them meat

For those of you who still believe, after all the intervening years, that Damon Albarn’s songwriting is rooted in the oom-pah music-hall stomp of Britpop, I cannot recommend enough that you try on both 1997’s Blur and 1999’s 13, both of which are prime examples of Blur giving up on the style that made them such household names, and instead choosing to pursue more experimental and at times difficult music, taking heed of far more wide-ranging influences.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Britpop, which saw Blur win the race to be #1 on the Singles chart – with the cringeworthy “Country House” – but Oasis win the battle of the albums, with (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, Blur soon realised the fickle nature of British music, and how quickly the public – who at the time were enchanted by the elision of music and politics made real by the superb efforts of our dear leader, Tony Blair – could abandon a group who they had previously loved. Rather than continue to pump out album-after-album of derivative, uninteresting music (I’m looking at you, Oasis), Blur instead fled to the country they had previously artistically slaughtered – America – in search of new ideas.

The resulting album, Blur, saw Graham Coxon take on a much more prominent role, influenced as he was by mainstays of American alternative music, such as Pavement and Beck, while Albarn’s lyrics took on a decidely more introspective angle, a theme that was to be extended on their next album. Blur remained reasonably commercially successful in the UK, but, crucially, it was equally a hit in America, whose audiences immediately ‘got’ “Song 2”. Even now, I think the album is a great testament to the breadth of the band’s talents, and the opener, “Beetlebum”, is right up there in my top three Blur songs. The band, freed from the pomp and circumstance of Britpop, produced an album that was bleaker, wilder and harsher, but, importantly, a strong melodic vein flows right through, giving it just enough warmth for the listener to want to come back to it.

Story has it that, during the recording process for Blur, Coxon refused to let anyone, including himself, retune his guitar, believing that the truest artistic statement would be to embrace the lo-fi. Perhaps thankfully, producer Stephen Street, horrified at the prospect of unveiling an album horribly out-of-tune to the record company, would secretly come into the studio in the dead of night to retune it!

One of the spirits that leans heavily on Blur is that of Bowie. Unashamed to join the canon of great British songwriters, Albarn’s compositions share a talent for experimentation, and also something intangibly similar, with those of Bowie – none more so than one of the closing tracks, “Strange News From Another Star”, which feels almost violated in its raw emotion. The combination of harsh electronic feedback and sweet acoustic guitar is painful in its emotional tug. With a typical sense of duty and sincerity, Albarn later performed it for a BBC Radio session honouring John Peel, the video of which is at the top of this post. In this context, it is a haunting and beautiful tribute to another demi-god of British music.