Britpop

Review: Blur – The Magic Whip

Over on this side of the Atlantic, news of a long-awaited Blur reunion album has been greeted with a collective shrug.  It is a reaction that is indicative of the band’s general reception in the US, but not befitting of the group’s sustained greatness over the course of their career.  Most American listeners remember Blur more-or-less as a one-hit wonder (“oh yeah, those guys that did the ‘Woo-hoo!’ song!“), which is a shame because that particular attempt to taking the piss out of grunge is hardly indicative of the band’s diverse body of work.

Blur’s albums have been eclectic and sprawling affairs, with the band shifting effortlessly between different genres over the course of the record, and The Magic Whip follows that template as well.  Unlike the band’s previous work though, there are no big singles to be found on the new record; it is unlikely that a crowd favorite like “Tender” or “Beetlebum” or “To the End” will emerge from this set of songs.  Fans should not be discouraged however–though Blur does not reach the peaks that they have in the past, overall this is perhaps the band’s strongest group of songs since their self-titled release, and it improves with every listen.

It is rather remarkable how little The Magic Whip resembles the typical comeback album.  The effort compares favorably to the recent Dinosaur Jr. reunion, as Blur sounds like they never broke up in the first place; listening to The Magic Whip in conjunction with the rest of the band’s discography, the novice listener would have no idea that there was a sixteen-year gap between the new album and the previous full-lineup incarnation.  There are no attempts to cash in on any modern trends, nor are there any painful attempts to recapture the glory of their youth; perhaps this is the payoff for all that restlessness and genre-shifting from their previous albums earlier in their career.  Blur never really had a typical sound, so they are free to experiment however they would like.

Contrary to what one may expect, there is only a moderate influence that can be detected from Damon Albarn’s myriad side-projects since the band’s last album; there is a bit of dub that recalls The Good, The Bad & The Queen, a bit of the melancholy that marked his recent solo album Everyday Robots, but little that is reminiscent of Gorillaz.  Instead, it is a much more cohesive affair than what would have been predicted, especially considering the background behind the recording of the album (it was put together during the downtime of a cancelled music festival over the course of a few short days).  In general, The Magic Whip is a laid-back affair, and some of the album’s best moments are when the band takes it down a notch and stretches out a bit, such as in the drifting “Mirrorball” or the appropriately-named “I Thought I Was A Spaceman”.  Of course, Blur is never content to just stick around mining the same groove, so there are a fair number of uptempo numbers, most notably the cheery “Ong Ong”.  It is an effervescent song that is placed perfectly near the end of the album, serving as an excellent capstone to the record, and will have you singing along with its refrain of “I wanna be with you” long after the whole thing is over.

Covered: “Common People”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

Pulp never achieved the same success stateside as it did in its native UK, but if Americans ever heard one of their songs it was probably their classic “Common People”.  The reputation of the song has grown over the years, and is considered by many to be the shining moment of the Britpop era.  It’s a fantastically fun song, a synth-heavy dance rave-up in a scene fueled by guitar-driven rock.  It’s also a masterwork in perfecting the “build”, morphing from a sly and mysterious beginning into an explosive, anthemic second half.  It’s also the perfect showcase for vocalist’s Jarvis Cocker’s smart and sarcastic persona, as he incisively tears into “class tourism”–a topic that bears increased relevance today, as any article on an area facing the pressures of gentrification would show.  As Jarvis points out, while most people who live in the slum-like conditions are forced to do so by circumstance, the woman in the song can easily escape with a simple phone call to Dad.

If people were asked to name someone who could successfully pull off a great cover song, William Shatner would have to rank near the bottom of the list.  To be fair, there’s a perfectly good reason for this.  But all due credit to producer Ben Folds, who found an excellent complement for Shatner’s unique…”singing” style.  Shatner’s dramatic talk-singing is the perfect vehicle for the trenchant social commentary inherent in the lyrics, and he’s able to draw out every bit of sardonic humor and bitter sarcasm with each line that he can.  Even his unusual pauses help provide the right amount of emphasis with each verbal attack.  As for the music, keyboards are traded for guitars in this version, and they do a great job of driving the song and providing an extra bit of edge while still allowing for the natural beat to push through.  In the end, you’re still rocking out and dancing, all the while smiling at the humor of the lyrics as you sing along.

Catching Up On The Week (Apr. 26 Edition)

Not too many #longreads this weekend, which probably is good news for us since our publishing schedule got sidetracked a bit this week, and there’s not much time left to cram.

The one exception is Stereogum’s week-long celebration of Britpop, featuring a ton of articles celebrating the 20th anniversary of one of the defining trends of the 90’s.  The pieces that grabbed my interest the most were the anniversary retrospective of Blur’s Parklife and the list of the Top 10 songs from The Verve, but I’ll be checking out more when I get the chance.

Going a few years from Britpop’s heyday, Shortlist has a slideshow of facts about Joy Division’s landmark album, Unknown Pleasures.  If that piques your interest, then I’d urge you to set aside some time in your schedule to watch Control and 24 Hour Party People if you haven’t already done so, because both are excellent looks at the brilliant band.

Just so you have the information somewhere on file, know that Lorde has been given Dave Grohl’s “Dad’s Seal of Approval”, which should have been somewhat obvious given her appearance with the reunited Nirvana at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

Finally, there are a couple of articles from Pitchfork I wanted to highlight.  On the one hand, there’s an interview with Marc Weidenbaum about his 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which provides some good insight into the composer, the development of the ambient genre, and the album itself.  At the end of the scale, we have this attempt by the staff to avoid writing a simple review of the new Pixies album Indie Cindy, with this half-assed stab at covering the entire Pixies discography.  It offers no insight or perspective on landmark albums like Surfer Rosa or Doolittle, but seems to exist only so that they have it on record that those records deserve perfect 10 scores, and that for some reason Trompe le Monde is a better album than Bossanova.  Perhaps that belief helps color their insistent tone in dealing with the new album.  I’d normally advise against reading something like this, but I’ll make an exception for this since it’s a good example of how empty some music writing can be.