Tag Archives: Blur

Blur ‘The Magic Whip’ – Review

28 Apr

When a beloved band returns after a fifteen year break, expectations are bound to be a little unreasonably high. Optimistic fans will be hoping Blur pick up where Parklife left off fifteen years ago, while even the more pessimistic end of the fanbase will be hoping for something of ‘Think Tank’s’s quality. But let’s be realistic. It’s been ten years since Damon Albarn had a hit, and his last few projects (Dr Dee, ‘Everyday Robots’, The Good the bad and the Queen, Monkey the Opera) have been drab and unspectacular affairs. Graham Coxon’s output since leaving Blur 15 years ago has been solid but modest, rarely supporting the audacious claim that he’s the best British guitarist of our generation. As for Alex and Dave, well, their adventures away from music, in the fields of Cheese and Politics respectively, have kept them busy, and relatively quiet since Blur left the scene.

And so in reality, expecting the band to come out of the gates like it’s 1995 is at best unfair and at worst damaging. Remember when we dreamt of Harrison For getting out the fedora and bull-whip for another Indiana Jones? Then came Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The last thing we want is for Damon and co to pull out the fred perrys only to realise they fit as badly as Harrison’s leather jacket. Sure, their comeback shows have been spectacular, but how could they not be?! Get a bunch of thirtysomethings in a field, get them drunk, play some quality tunes and let them re-live their youth – you couldn’t go wrong. But there is a difference between doing that, and making a decent album.

So let’s calm down. Let’s be fair to them and our memories. ‘The Magic Whip’ is what a rational, logical, clear minded fan might expect. It’s the work of four talented musicians, who now lead separate lives, coming together again to re-connect in a way that makes sense on a personal, as much as a musical level. It’s slightly awkward at points, rarely fluid or magical and often sleepy but nonetheless it does display a remarkable bond and synergy that has endured despite the long break. And thankfully, it isn’t hopelessly nostalgic; it casts an eye to the past but doesn’t fix it there. It’s very much an album by Blur as they are in 2015, warts and all, even if they aren’t exactly as we would like them to be.

And so Damon still has an unfortunate proclivity for doom and gloom lyrics and overcast melodies, Graham’s riffs are a little too cookie cutter and Dave’s mid paced plod sounds a tad too much like the work of a middle aged lawyer – which it is (for what it’s worth, Alex’s bass lines are as elastic and bright as ever). But by coming together they do a lot to cancel out the negatives, and actually strengthen a connection that most bands would kill for.

Left to his own devices Damon would certainly be content to make another ‘Everyday Robots’, based on his contributions here. He dwells vaguely on the symbols and signifiers of terror and discontent in the modern age, rarely doing anything other than scraping the surface of ‘big topics’ – where did his sense of humour go? But anyway, Graham’s riffs add colour and drama to the sometimes dreary arrangements, while the rhythm section is a nicely human antidote to Albarn’s recent glitchy beat tendency. It also seems the very idea of being in Blur again (a group that wrote number one hits remember) has rejuvenated some kind of pop instinct in Albarn, at least to an extent. The gleeful ‘OngOng’ is all drippy piano licks, church choirs, major chords and smiles. ‘I wanna be with you’ he swoons, optimistic and enthusiastic for the first time in what feels like ages. Likewise, ‘Lonesome Street’, ‘I Broadcast’ and ‘Go Out’ recapture some of that bubbly pop vibe that they used to have bottled.

Even on the weirder tracks, like the paranoid ‘New World Towers’ and the snappy ‘Ice Cream’, Graham and Alex manage to tease some fun hooks out of some yawning songs, over-riding some of Damon’s persistent cynicism. But then again, that cynicism is equally important in stopping Graham’s naturally insular, nostalgic retro rock tendencies from taking over.
Blur never sound entirely like the band of old, nor do they entirely sound like a Blur for 2015. In its weaker moments ‘The Magic Whip’ sounds like the result of four guys spending a long weekend jamming to no real end. Which is exactly how it came in to being. And so there is no real drive or purpose on display, no obvious design and a sorry lack of cohesive, clear minded song writing.

But in moments we are given aesthetic sweeties to remind us of the good old days. ‘Lonesome Street’s guitar has a tone that is remincitant of ‘Parklife’, whilst Coxon’s vocals on that track have the same Syd Barret feel of ‘Starwhaped.’ Likewise, the backing vocals on ‘Go Out’ have all the ‘Ohs’ and ‘awws’ in all the right places, just as they were on ‘The Great Escape.’ ‘I-Broadcast’ has the chugging punk vibe of ‘Advert’ and ‘Globe Alone’ whilst ‘I Thought I Was a Spaceman’ could have been taken from ‘13’.

Sounds. Backing vocals. Guitar tones. Sometimes just an unidentifiable feeling. These are the things that very briefly make you feel the things you felt the first time you heard ‘For Tomorrow’ or ‘End of the Century’ or ‘Song 2’ – whatever your entry point was. I say this as someone who only really got in to the band fairly recently, and I can only imagine how somebody who experienced Blur first time around will feel upon hearing these songs – I imagine Goosebumps and hairs on necks may be involved. But they are only brief, sensory thrills that simply trigger older, better feelings and memories. ‘The Magic Whip’ isn’t stuck in the past, but it does rely on it a little bit to hold your attention. But Blur do enough, and do it so naturally, to suggest that they do have it in them to make something more significant – something classic. If this is what 5 days jamming and a whole lot of Stephen Street tinkering achieved, then I wonder what would be possible if some serious forethought, song writing and effort were involved?


Gorillaz ‘Plastic Beach’ – Review

9 Mar

Gorrilaz were meant to eradicate the public’s need to know everything about their stars. They are a fictional, cartoon band with invented back stories who are hidden in silhouette live. And yet the longer the charade goes on the more it seems obvious that it’s impossible to hide in the 21st century. The more Damon Albarn adds to the Gorillaz myth the more it actually reveals about him, and the more you wonder why he doesn’t just ‘come out’ so to speak. The fact that he is actively promoting this album only makes it seem more bizarre that he still hides behind a cartoon character that Jamie Hewlett, his creative partner, is sick of drawing.

Obviously Albarn still believes the concept has something to offer, and so for now he is sticking to it. Therefore ‘Plastic Beach’, the follow-up to 2005’s ‘Demon Day’s is finally with us, and it’s a great success.The story goes something along the lines of this…The cartoon characters have ended up on an island made up of rubbish, floating out at sea as far away as possible from human life.  It seems the band are building a new, better world on the waste of the old world. ‘Respect the island here, no stealing/ and no religion either, no freaking’. Truth be told, past track four I lost the thread of the story but it’s good that it isn’t essential to enjoyment of the album.

Whilst an album of this scale and ambition is impressive it is too long to be considered a complete triumph. The album passes the hour mark with ease and although there is nothing on here that stands out as filler a bit more editing would have made this a more digestible record. It’s probably for the best then that duets with The Horrors and Bee Gees didn’t make the cut, as brilliant as they sound like they would have been.

Guests who did survive include Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Kano, Snoop Dog and Mark E Smith. This is easily Gorillaz most star-studded album to date, Albarn’s familiar voice doesn’t even come in until track four.  I’m not sure how all these guests play into the concept Albarn has outlined for the album, maybe the all live on The Plastic Beach as well.

So who delivers and which doesn’t? Well Mark E. Smith is brilliant on an otherwise forgettable track, Lou Reed is typically great on a song called ‘Some Kind of Nature’ and Bobby Womack is better still on first single ‘Stylo’ which has really grown on me recently. But I would say the best song here is the one that features no guests. ‘On melancholy hill’ is a delicate ballad that reminds me of Albarn’s brilliant way with a melody. It’s so good it almost makes me wish that this was a more traditional, straight forward guitar album. It feels like it’s been ages since we’ve had one from Albarn and this song reminds you just how good at it he is. He said he wanted this to be the perfect pop album but maybe he’s forgotten that he already made one and the chances of him bettering ‘Parklife’ are slim indeed.

‘Plastic Beach’ may just be the best Gorillaz album yet, it may even be the best album Damon Albarn has made since ‘Parklife’. There is nothing on here as brilliant as ‘Clint Eastwood’, ‘Feel Good Inc’ or ‘Dirty Harry’ but it’s a record in the traditional sense, one that flows from song to song, with a start and an end. Even so it is still a very modern, even futuristic album that asks questions about pop, celebrity, the enviroment and society over some great music. The questions may be a bit shaky and the concept of a cartoon band may no longer work as it did ten years ago but for all it’s flaws ‘Plastic Beach’ will be an album to remember.


Britpop revisited

19 Jun

Britpop is undergoing a re-evaluation in the music press as of late – and now the people that market nostalgia have moved on from the late 80’s to the mid 90’s and we are about to see a surge of britpop themed compilations. It is inevitable that after a certain period of time has passed, labels will go back and exploit peoples memories of a genre or movement for all it’s worth. The Britpop revival starts here with the first genuine  look back at the period of British music, a compilation called ‘Common People’.


It’s a decent set, whilst they clearly haven’t had a lot of money to splash around (notable omissions include Oasis and Blur, the two biggest acts of the movement) they have compiled a good CD, if one disk too long. I’m predicting that next Summer we shall see even more of these comp’s, maybe the odd documentary and even some throwback bands.

I have both good and bad memories of Britpop. I an remember vaguely the controversy that followed Oasis as the bad boy’s of rock, and songs such as ‘Staying out for the summer’, ‘wake up boo’ and ‘wonderwall’ were absolutely everywhere – even a 6 year old child couldn’t miss hearing them. My main memories though are of it’s decline. I was completely bored by Britpop and now realize I mostly remember it’s dieing years, the Oasis imitators, drab overlong songs and baggy jeans; It was an inescapable culture as much as a music movement. Now I am  discovering earlier gems of the period so I welcome CD’s like Common people which will help me re-discover the music of my childhood.

Below is my ultimate Britpop playlist – 25 of my favourite Britpop songs, one song per band. Some are on the CD but most aren’t. (click to hear)

1. Live Forever – Oasis
2. Trash – Suede
3. Staying Out For The Summer – Dodgy
4. Wake Up Boo! – The Boo Radlys
5. Alright – Supergrass
6. Common People – Pulp
7. Slight Return – The Bluetones
8. Mulder and Scully – Catatonia
9. All you good good people – Embrace
10. Parklife – Blur
11. The Day we Caught The Train – Ocean Colour Scene
12. Female of The Species – Space
13. Just – Radiohead
14. Nancy Boy – Placebo
15. Linger – The Cranberries
16. Brimful of Asha – Cornershop
17. If You tolerate this – Manic Street Preachers
18. Girl From mars – Ash
19. Ocean Drive – Lighthouse Family
20. Tubthumping – Chumbawumba
21. Rotterdam – The Beautiful south
22. How Bizzare – OMC
23. Walkaway – Cast
24. You and me song -The Wannadies
25. The Drugs Don’t Work – The Verve

It would be just as easy to do the 24 worst – but I would rather slit my wrists than hear them all over again! I just hope that there isn’t oversaturation with the Britpop revival, I would hate things to go back to how they were in the late 90’s when the worst of Britpop was everywhere.