J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Playlists, podcasts and music from WQFS Greensboro's J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Return Trip: Blur - Blur

(Food/Virgin ; 1997)

Fade in: The year is 1997. Nearly simultaneously I hear that Damon Albarn, main songwriter for Blur, has been heavily listening to a) American Hardcore and b) American indie-rock, especially Pavement. Coming off of 1995's The Great Escape this is interesting news. That album had seen Blur seemingly reach the outer limits of its fetish with snarky social commentary and rocky, structured, orchestrated pop - the horns and strings were at full-tilt over most of the record, after all. I make a note to be prepared for somewhat of a shift in the sound of one of my favorite bands. Fade Out.

Fade in: I am walking down the hallway of my high school - studiously aware of my vastly superior music taste, especially in things British - on my way to English class (haw!) when I hear a high-pitched voice from nearby, aimed directly at me: "Woo-hoo!" I cringe and turn. It is a friendly female grinning at me as she repeats the cacophonous interjection - "Woo-hoo!"

I look at her. "What are you doing, friendly female?" She smiles. "I'm singing that new song by that band Blur. I believe it is called 'Woo-hoo, a Composition in Standard Time.' And it goes like this: 'Woo-hoo!'" I frown. She is singing a song by Blur, a band of who only I am largely aware in my social circle. I make a mental note to keep an eye on this rise in their popularity. Especially since I am still uncertain about my own feelings. Fade Out.

Fade in: Hands over ears, I am fleeing through the halls of the school as various friendly faces, like minions of the Outer Dark, intone like a ceaseless metronome: "Woo-hoo!" My eyes water and gleam as I take my copy of Blur's self-titled album and put it into my CD booklet - not to remove it for listening pleasure again for some time. I close the book and look off into the setting sun as a lone tear cascades down a dirty cheek. Fade Out. - FIN.

And it was every bit that dramatic, I assure you. I didn't touch Blur's self-titled record for some time after its release and my initial listens. I really didn't know what to make of it at the time, but being older and wiser, I've come to make amends. The rumors about hardcore were a bit off, but not the ones about Pavement. If ever there was the sound of someone trying to imitate the wild, abandoned scramble of Wowee Zowee, Blur's self-titled record is it.

Blur is also the last record to see the overwhelming influence of guitarist Graham Coxon on Blur's overall sound. His guitar work, so important to all of Blur's albums through this one, would be largely lost in the haze of follow-up 13, and of course he would have fled the band entirely by the time of 2003's Think Tank. The musical divides start to show on this album, but that is largely what makes it so fantastic.

It opens with "Beetlebum," a song that easily echoes Blur's past even as it turns the mood inward. It is strange to open a record with a relative downer of a song, but the beautiful guitar and vocal work makes it okay. Then comes the aforementioned - in catch-phrase only - "Song 2." Heavier than just about any other Blur song I can think of, "Song 2" is a raging sprint of a pop song, featuring the easily sung chorus that undoubtedly made it the radio hit that it was here stateside. This ready shift between beautiful sadness and boisterous nonsense is where the comparisons to Wowee Zowee seem appropriate. ("Grounded" into "Serpentine Pad," anyone?)

Over the next three tracks the spread runs from lazy, somewhat goofy indie-rock ("Country Sad Ballad Man") to retro-tinged touches of the guitar rock of earlier album Modern Life is Rubbish ("M.O.R.") to electronically flourished (this is the late 90s, after all), bouncy rock alá The Great Escape ("On Your Own"). There is a bit of jarring from song to song, but the effect is more of an enjoyable haze rather than a disorientation.

The album shifts gears with the clicking, stomping "Death of a Party," possibly the album's highlight. The song would be inadvertently recalled in the much darker and more paranoid "Climbing the Walls" on an album from later in 2007, Radiohead's OK Computer, but the monster-movie-ish organ and clattering, reverb-laden percussion is an eerie backdrop to the maudlin overtones of Albarn's lyrics and they give the song a slowly burning dance groove. This song also, more than any other on the album, foreshadows the direction in which Albarn would take Blur when he took full-helm of the band for Think Tank, though nothing on that album quite matches this song.

The rickshaw race punk of "Chinese Bombs," the Parklife-redux of "Look Inside America" and "Movin' On," a song that in spirit and placement is a boon companion for Modern Life is Rubbish track "Pop Scene," are all conspirators in the controlled sprawl of the album. And then there's "Essex Dogs," the 11-minute long, three-part, spoken-word inclusive, stubborn ending to the whole shebang. It's an interesting listen, and I'll give them credit for putting it on the record, but considering their pointed move away from their Brit-pop legacy, wouldn't a song titled "Movin' On" have been a really great way to finish their first album in this new direction?

Years later, I love this record. It took me a long time to understand what was going on - a band wanting to hack its own way out of the trappings of a movement they'd helped shepherd - but its brilliance is obvious. Damon Albarn has always had an ear for production - even at its most rickety, the album's shambling veneer is simply that, a cover for a well controlled pop-experiment. The success was in spades - I just wish I'd seen it then.

Rating: A(udiophilic)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Judge For Yourself:

Blur - "Beetlebum"

Blur - "M.O.R."

Blur - "Death of a Party"

Purchase Blur at Amazon.

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  • At 3:51 AM, November 08, 2007, Blogger Satisfied '75 said…

    great, great album. looking back, it's almost funny they had such a big "hit" with this album. people must have purchased it and immediately thought 'what the fuck???'

  • At 8:30 AM, November 08, 2007, Blogger J. Neas said…

    True - although I assume, since this was still vaguely before the across-the-board abandonment of the CD single by the industry, that a lot of people would've bought the "Song 2" single. But yes, I can only imagine what a lot of people thought of this album, especially if they weren't commonly slumming through the indie world, or heaven forbid, had even heard Blur's prior work.


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