Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Modern Life Is Rubbish - Blur

The investment that facilitates the professional production and promotion of new art is seldom the fruit of philantropy. For every De Medici, Guggenheim and Carnegie there is a small nation of opportunists, entrepreneurs and hardnosed shake down merchants that will attempt to bleed an artist to the marrow in the hope of transforming creativity to a more tangible asset.

Countless are the cautionary tales of young bands who signed to record labels, enjoyed the first fumes of success that they dreamed of, but soon found themselves entrenched in acrimonious squabbling with the money men.

In a post ''She Loves You'' Britain every guitar band with a modicum of talent - or a pretty singer - was swiftly mop-topped and sent for a suit fitting. The Beatles were the big fish, but there was still plenty of opportunity to shift units in their slipstream.

The piggyback-the-fashion strategy has worked out marvellously for many acts through the history of popular music. You can only admire the gall of a group as influenced by 60's music - and particularly The Doors - as The Stranglers to succeed in passing themselves off as a punk band when that was what was required for them to find an audience. The jangly psychedelia that inspired them to play gave way to power chords and overdrive pedals. Subtlety run out of town by bombast, but that's revolution for you. 

If you were playing in a guitar band as the decade flipped from 80's to 90's you may have got away with a mid 60's Rubber Soul haircut but the focus of attention had switched between north of England towns. Manchester was now where it was at. The look was baggy. The signature beat a hypnotic shuffle.

The scene arguably peaked not far past its dawn with The Stone Roses debut album, but still there was chart success to be found in the trusted piggyback. The Mock Turtles, The Soup Dragons and the cynically contrived cover of Dizzy by The Wonderstuff and Vic Reeves all pleased the bean counters with their chart entries.

Against this backdrop, in the south of England somebody was drawing a hump on a thoroughbred's back and calling it a camel.

Finding themselves with a young guitar band at their disposal Food Records, a small record company set up by former Teadrop Explodes keyboardist, Dave Balfe, and distributed through EMI, set about turning Blur in to big players in the lucrative baggy scene.

The result was the 1991 album, "Leisure". But the party was already winding down in Manchester, and aside from the promising single "There's No Other Way", the southerners sounding like northerners made little significant impact on the mainstream. Unlike many bands who largely failed in their attempt to ride the piggy, Blur got a second bite at the cherry. This time they would step out of the slipstream and face the headwind.

Modern Life Is Rubbish is neither Blur's most acclaimed or successful album. It is however among the most brilliant albums of its time and shows how a band standing on the abyss of debt, inertia and mediocrity played an ace that kept them in the game long enough to become principals of Britpop in the years to come.

The improvement between Blur's first two albums is astonishing. The inane repeated rhymes of 'say/play/day' which undermine Leisure had been consigned to the dustbin in Blur's only release of 1992, the single-only release Popscene. The track was a commercial failure but it undoubtedly serves as the overture to the Modern Life Is Rubbish album, and with hindsight should have found a spot on the album.

Damon Albarn began to write in a more observational way, channeling a particularly British form of songwriting guided by the footprints of Ray Davies, Steve Marriott, Syd Barrett and Paul Weller among others. He wrote his first 'character song' worthy of album inclusion with 'Colin Zeal', in the tradition of 'David Watts', and 'Arnold Layne'. This was to become a significant feature of Albarn's songs over the Britpop years with futher efforts in this vein such as 'Tracy Jacks', 'Jubilee', 'Ernold Same' and of course the eponomously anagrammed 'Dan Abnormal'. There were some earlier ventures into character songs with 'Mr Briggs' and 'Badgeman Brown' but neither were deemed of sufficient quality to be anything but B-Sides, and were probably too Barrettesque to be credible.

He wrote about London, with namechecks in 'For Tomorrow' and 'Blue Jeans'. There was also the first mention of America in a song title, with the woozy hangover paean 'Miss America'. This again was the first shapings of a pattern that would be repeated with 'Magic America' on Parklife and 'Look Inside America' on the 'Blur' album. It's perhaps more habit than obsession that sees Albarn include America in song titles in unusual proportion. Most feasible is that he finds a comfortable rhythmical musicality with the word 'America' rather than having any lingering preoccupation with the nation.

The scope of the album's music is rich and varied. Acoustic guitars were about as welcome as a Hacienda drug-bust in the 'Madchester' scene. The reverse reverb opening Modern Life Is Rubbish can be heard as a bracing inhalation before Graham Coxon's sparkly acoustic delivers four broad staccato blows to the dying horse of baggy. And so begins the critique of early 90's Britain.

Modern life is panned and a young couple, cold, and despairing of the bleakness of London's shared isolation hold on 'For Tomorrow'. The sighing Duke String Quartet add to an arrangement that is alien for its time when Seattle grunge is becoming the fashion of the moment. Chirpy la la la backing vocals counterpoint descriptions of freezing toes, disorientation and nausea. Coxon's electric guitar is cleaner and more melodic than at any time on 'Leisure'. The rhythm pattern he uses in the verses of this opening track is perhaps a signpost towards his later playing on Parklife's 'To The End'.

The frustrating circular inanity of TV advertisements are the next aspect of modern life to be given both barrells in 'Advert'. The 'Food processers are great' intro is a grab from The Shopping Channel. Exasperated at the relentless pushing of products and panaceas ranging from holidays to painkillers, Albarn screams 'Say something else'. Symptomatic of the numbing of thought brought on by exposure to pressure selling, the band bypass the opportunity to deliver a middle eight, change section or solo and fill the gap by counting out 16 uninformative bars of punked A to G.

Competing with 'For Tomorrow' as the album's killer track is the brilliant 'Chemical World'. This song is college-pop perfection. The stop-start intro demands immediate attention from the listener. Following in the album's running order from the laconic and pensive 'Blue Jeans', it's the kind of unexpected blast that triggers the 'turn-it-down' reflex in unenthusiastic parents, partners and flatmates. Those who turn it down will know not enough of this world on their deathbeds. As the intro decays, Coxon steps into the cadence with a magnificent flanging melody in the pitch of a tenor ice-cream van counterpointing the monotone call, and bouncy response vocal throughout the verses.

The chorus too is charged by the melody of the guitar. The vocal carries the melancholy weariness and dull pitch that is often characteristic of Albarn, and brings to mind The Specials' frontman Terry Hall of whom Albarn is a big fan. It demands every bit of Coxon's invention, and he delivers in spades with some of the most imaginative and melodic playing of his career. His line is allowed an extended airing through the coda; these moments are the zenith of Blur.

Having delivered their finest melodic work in the opening tracks of the album, Blur immediately veer away from anything that might be considered a predictable closer to side one of the album. Instead they indulge themselves in a piece of anarchic instrumental vaudeville that merges German musichall piano with howls of feedback and reckless acceleration. There's little regard for the ears of the audience, or intent to shift units as the ghost of a past incarnation, 'Seymour', possesses 'Intermission'. It's not a track for the ipod generation. On its own 'Intermission' means nothing. In the context of the Blur story and this album in particular, it makes perfect sense.

The bulk of Blur's trump cards are played on side one of the album, but there are a few excellent tracks on the flipside.

The overt Britishness of the band's music takes centre stage on 'Sunday, Sunday' with references to the BBC's weekly worship hymn-a-long 'Songs of Praise', a war veteran nostalgic for 'old' England and talk of Sunday roasts - not unlike the one featured in the 'There's No Other Way' video. Perhaps feeling that their enthusiastic satire of an English Sunday afternoon would be lost on their audience, the album's sleevenotes define beneath the track title: 'Legislated nostaligia: to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess'.

'Oily Water' sees Albarn deliver his vocal through a 'Shopping Precinct Tannoy', drummer Dave Rowntree beats a jarring downtempo rhythm that rises to a wild crescendo against a backdrop of screeching and white noise. Coxon frequently cited 'My Bloody Valentine' as an influence and Kevin Shields' trademark layers of grinding distortion can be heard here.

The album's weak spot is 'Turn It Up'. Albarn has been quoted saying it was a mistake to include this song on the album, and he's not wrong. Apparently he, and the band, were overruled by Food Records boss Dave Balfe who (incorrectly) believed the American market might bite at the song. There were certainly better songs from the time left off the album that ended up as B-Sides such as 'Into Another' and 'Peach', or as mentioned earlier the single release, 'Popscene'. That being said, 14 tracks - excluding 'Intermission' and 'Commerical Break' with only one dud certainly offers value for money.   

'Villa Rosie' is a track that deserves a special mention. Presumably a homage to some manner of a bordello or gentleman's club, the lines of its verses climb through a scale to peak with a 'woo-hoo' and repeat the pattern before bursting in to one of the most melodic choruses in the band's entire catalogue. Again Coxon is in top form and his playing in both the choruses and also the similar guitar break is heavily stamped by his signature technique of morphing the rhythm guitar's chord sequence in to bursts of lead playing.

The album closes with a reprise of the 'Intermission' idea of unwelcome interruptions with an escalating angry ridicule of elevator music in 'Commercial Break'.

'Concept album' is a maligned phrase conjuring images of self indulgent cape-wearing prog-rockers, but there is undoubtedly a consistent vision throughout 'Modern Life Is Rubbish'. A commonality of themes, sounds and subject matter delivers one of the most coherent, inventive, colourful and clever albums of the 1990's.

There is a school of thought - though its students may be few - that had Blur released this album after 'Parklife' it would be widely regarded as their most important album, and an all-time classic.

Track Listing:
  1. For Tomorrow
  2. Advert
  3. Colin Zeal 
  4. Pressure on Julian
  5. Starshaped
  6. Blue Jeans
  7. Chemical World
  8. Sunday, Sunday
  9. Oily Water
  10. Miss America
  11. Villa Rosie
  12. Coping
  13. Turn It Up
  14. Resigned
    Commercial Break
All songs written by Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree

Vocals and Keyboards: Damon Albarn
Guitar: Graham Coxon
Bass: Alex James
Drums: Dave Rowntree
Producers: Stephen Street, Steve Lovell, Blur, John Smith

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ocean Rain - Echo & The Bunnymen

The fickle scales which balance talent against recognition treated Echo and The Bunnymen with an uncommon cruelty. Musically, they had it all but somehow never reached the commercial heights of the big hitters throughout the 1980s. 

The brand of guitar-driven post-punk they presented with their debut album Crocodiles, four years prior to Ocean Rain, carried a menace that by this album had been tempered by their growing mastery of melody and arrangement. Clearly their ears were wide open to the music of their 1960’s childhoods in Liverpool as well as David Bowie's finest moments of the 70's.  By the time they recorded this, their fourth studio album, the four piece had reached their pinnacle. 

Ocean Rain was released in May 1984 to claims of being the 'greatest album ever made'. Thankfully more thought went in to the album's music than its promotional strategy. Even hard core Bunnymen fans will acknowledge that there is some case of overselling to be answered, however it is the Bunnymen's best effort, and indeed one of the best albums of that decade. 

Crocodiles is also essential listening, though it doesn’t have the same poise or consideration in arrangement as this nine track masterpiece - nor being a debut release did it have the budget.

Orchestral strings feature heavily throughout this work, as they had done since The Cutter launched their Porcupine album the previous year. Crocodiles featured no strings whatsoever, while the vast majority of tracks on Ocean Rain carry a prominent string section (My Kingdom and Thorn Of Crowns the exceptions), making the contrast between the band's two most acclaimed albums all the more pronounced. Rather than aggressively driving every track, Will Sergeant's guitar now jangles and grinds its way between the melodic spaces allowed by the bowsmiths.

Sergeant is one of the master guitarists of his era. His playing throughout Ocean Rain frequently reveals a tasteful leaning towards eastern music, notably the guitar breaks of Silver, Killing Moon and Thorn of Crowns. His lead passages are invariably relevant, modest and effective.

There is a sense of epic cinema about the entire album. The strings in the album’s second track, Nocturnal Me wouldn’t be out of place in a remake of Lawrence of Arabia, while lyrically the album calls on imagery of seas, oceans, hurricanes and ‘My Kingdom’.

Admittedly many of Ian McCulloch’s lyrics though magnificently delivered, are inscrutable, with little continuity from verse to verse in several songs. The tone conjured by his choice of words is relentlessly brooding, dark and ominous, with precedence given to atmosphere and mood over narrative. 

Killing Moon is perhaps the best known track on the album and maybe even the best known of all the Bunnymen's catalogue. It reached number nine in the UK charts and still gets occasional mainstream - and plenty of indie - airplay. It is a solemn and mysterious tune, the scene of unease set within Sergeant's first few picked notes. McCulloch's dark lyrics alluding to a romantic sacrifice could have been penned by Edgar Allen Poe. It is a gothic triumph, eerily punctuated with atmospheric shrieks and scrapes from the cellos and dissonant piano. 

The track which gives the album its name is probably the most considered recording the band ever produced. Its delicate treatment and beautifully controlled escalation throughout its five minutes shows a group at the very top of their game. Starting with slow pendular bass notes, McCulloch's deep, reverberating vocal sounds as if its being delivered from the fragile rowboat slowly navigating the otherworldly cavelake on the album cover.  

A brilliant moment comes as the song moves in to its fourth minute. The rich string arrangement is starting to move through the gears towards its climax as the refrain begins again "I'm at sea again, and now my hurricanes have brought down this ocean rain". The strings - for the only time in the song - ring out a falling slide that makes the feeling of resignation in torrential rain magically vivid. A magnificent closer to a monumental album.

Track Listing:
  1. Silver
  2. Nocturnal Me
  3. Crystal Days
  4. The Yo Yo Man
  5. Thorn of Crowns 
  6. The Killing Moon
  7. Seven Seas
  8. My Kingdom
  9. Ocean Rain
Vocals: Ian McCulloch
Guitar: Will Sergeant
Bass: Les Pattinson
Drums: Pete De Frietas
Producers: Gil Norton, Henri Lonstan and Echo & The Bunnymen
Orchestral Arrangements: Adam Peters