Friday, December 11, 2015

2015: My Blur-y Year

Blur Who?


As a long-time radio Music Director you might think I've heard it all, but no. Kind of impossible to hear everything - the sheer amount of new music released each year is staggering. Do try to find and listen to as much new music as possible, but stuff still gets by me. Back in the '90s, the U.K. band Blur got by me, even though I was Music Director at an Album-oriented Rock station at the time. Maybe they were only being promoted to Alternative radio. Not sure. Simply don't remember them from back then.

Before this year, I only really knew the band's "Song 2" and "There's No Other Way" - and those tunes mostly because they were on the playlist at The Point, the Adult Album Alternative station where I'm now Music Director (http://pointfm.com). We did play Blur lead singer Damon Albarn's solo release "Mr. Tembo" on The Point last year - loved the tune as soon as I heard it, a little ditty about an elephant who made himself at home in an African village. I was also vaguely familiar with Gorillaz - Albarn's "other" project that has in some ways brought him greater fame in the States than Blur.

But now? As 2015 draws to a close, Blur have become one of my all-time favorite bands! Own all their albums. Saw them live at Madison Square Garden - and had a very cool encounter after the show - more on that later. I feel compelled to compile playlists and write posts about them (obviously). Yup, 2015 turned into a very Blur-y year. How and why? It all began with their new album, the reunion effort The Magic Whip, and the release of the first "teaser" track.


"There Are Too Many Of Us" - First taste of Whip


March 20th, Blur released the video for "There Are Too Many of Us". A martial beat opens the tune as Albarn sings of overpopulation and the change of generations. About a minute in, things kick up a notch - drummer Dave Rowntree doubles his efforts as bassist Alex James brings on the bottom end, the keyboards intensify, and guitarist Graham Coxon weaves in subtle electric menace - I was instantly hooked. One of the best songs I'd heard in a long time!


Got in touch with Blur's American label Warner Brothers and found it wasn't the lead single, but they still sent me the "teaser" track and we started playing it on the air. The single turned out to be "Lonesome Street". At first, I wasn't into it. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense as the lead single for the UK and the rest of the world - it's nearly quintessential Blur, a distillation of many elements the band was known for through the years. It's also a great tune!

"Go Out" an aggressive, bawdy growler, came out as another "teaser" track, another track that didn't connect with me at first. As I loved "There Are Too Many of Us" - and ignorant as I was of the Blur catalog - the other track choices didn't make sense to me then. They do now.

Because now, I get Blur. It's kind of awesome to discover a new band to love that's really an old band, with a pretty killer catalog of work. Who just so happen to have put out a surprise (and surprisingly great) new album that stands up with their older stuff!


Traveling Backwards Into Brit Pop


The Magic Whip arrived at the end of April. Getting into the new album over the next month, I grew curious about Blur's earlier material, sampling some lesser known (to me) older tunes of theirs as I delved back into Brit Pop music in general.Started checking out Blur's greatest hits alongside music from Pulp, Suede, and other UK Brit Pop purveyors. (Want to listen to a playlist of classic Brit Pop? Made one here at 8Tracks.com).

As I explored Blur's music, an article at AV Club drew my attention - The AV Club boils Blur's entire career down to a one-hour mix - by Marah Eakin. AV Club has a "Power Hour" thing they do, where they feature an hour's worth of music by a band along with a bunch of background information. This one was great. Learned a lot about the band. I also made a mix from the article's suggested tunes, with a couple others added on based on the comments after, hit Play and began to get to know Blur better.

That "Power Hour" did its job! Eakin's list wasn't just made up of big UK hits by the band but also included album cuts, showing off other sides of Blur. The mix revealed to me a complex band capable of mining the entire British songbook that preceded them as they created their own ongoing attempts at self-expression. Some lyrics followed in the wry tradition of Ray Davies' observational sketches, recalling The Kinks, while rhythmically the band occasionally echoed XTC... sometimes simultaneously, as in "Tracy Jacks", for example. I had no idea...


I later looked up Eakin on Twitter and thanked her for the article - my entry point into the world of Blur. Two of the songs she included hit me hard - loved the crackling seething fun of "On Your Own" (from Blur - 1997) - much more musically appealing to me than the more famous "Song 2" from that same album.


And "This Is A Low" from 1994's Parklife was simply sublime, the soaring chorus lifting me up, letting my soul fly. The first time I heard Coxon's twin guitar leads on the tune they sent shivers down my spine. These weren't tunes I was simply liking in passing - they were impacting my psyche, my soul. Deep impressions. I was loving this stuff! Ripped a couple of their albums into iTunes and began checking out more Blur.


A Stroll in the Parklife


Decided to get more serious with my Blur explorations and ordered the 2012 deluxe 2 CD UK reissue of their 1994 masterpiece Parklife. Though mostly unknown in the US aside from the infectious dance single "Girls & Boys", the album was "a landmark in British Rock Music" as its Wikipedia entry notes, selling more than 3 million copies worldwide and garnering rather massive critical acclaim, debuting at number one on the British charts. My copy arrived in early June and I dived into what, in some ways, is a survey of British pop music filtered through Blur's own musical sensibilities.

Parklife is a brilliant album. The title track is a thoroughly British piece of work with native narration by guest Phil Daniels - who played Jimmy in the movie version of Quadrophenia. Along with the title cut, "This is a Low" and "Girls & Boys", "End of a Century" and "To the End" made up the album's singles, all strong tracks. The deeper album cuts - already-mentioned "Tracy Jacks",  "Badhead" (still performed live in concert), the punk thrash of "Bank Holiday", psychedelic "Far Out", the wordplay fun of "London Loves", new wavy "Trouble In The Message Center" - all pack a wollop. No filler here - although the two brief instrumentals  - waltz-y "The Debt Collector" and Looney Tunes-ish "Lot 105" - aren't what you'd call substantial, but they do serve as sort of "side enders".

As mentioned above, it was "This Is a Low" from Parklife that really stunned me. One of my all-time favorite songs, now. Can't believe I'd not heard it before this year - it has the sort of timeless quality that makes you feel like it's existed forever. I want to play it for everyone I know...


In mid-June, the band announced U.S. tour dates for late October. Decided I needed to see my new favorite band live and lined up a pair of tickets for their Madison Square Garden show October 23rd! Also decided I needed to step up my exploration of their catalog and ordered the follow-up to Parklife, 1995's The Great Escape - again ordering up a 2 disc deluxe reissue from the UK. Began to think about listening to an older Blur album each month leading up to the concert - The Great Escape would be my July listening.


No Escape-ing Blur


When The Great Escape arrived, I found that I didn't stop listening to Parklife but instead listened to both albums, the twin pinnacles of Blur's Brit Pop years. The Magic Whip was becoming a favorite new album as well - it was my "Summer of Blur"! I'd begun posting about my new musical obsession on facebook and it turned out my friends Rachel and Chris were both huge fans of the band from back in their heyday - so I had some Blur "cheerleaders" cheering on and "Liking" and commenting on these new favorite songs as I posted and wrote about them.

Rachel called The Great Escape, "Parklife on crack" - heh. It is a "shinier" album than Parklife - it's brassier, featuring more horns in its arrangements - more strings, too - and brighter production. The classic British musical aromas are still there, from trace whiffs of The Who and Kinks to Johnny Rotten. But it's weaker than it predecessor in one sense - it feels a little long.

A bit of filler here? Perhaps. The second half of the album kind of loses me - really can't listen to "Ernold Sayne" at all. The strongest tune on the later part of the album - "Entertain Me" - only really came to life in a new, substantially remixed version well after the original came out.

But the front end of the album is loaded with delicious, complex British pop rock. A couple of album cuts have stuck with me in the oddest way - just kind of love "He Thought of Cars" and "Mr Robinson's Quango" - the latter reminds me of Madness when the horns kick in! There's a touch of Madness in the album's big single "Country House" to my ears, too - and I love it!

The crown jewel of the album is "The Universal". As great a tune as it is, this is one of those rare occasions where a video makes a song even better - the Clockwork Orange inspired video draws out the underlying menace in the tune, highlights the bitter taste hiding behind the sweetness of the strings and vocal delivery. Both Rachel and Chris said the same thing after I told them I was getting The Great Escape - "You've gotta watch the video for 'The Universal'!" They're right. You really do:


Was still listening to The Great Escape in August when an interesting synchronicity occurred. The 20th anniversary of the Brit Pop "showdown" between Blur and Oasis rolled around. Blur moved the release of their "Country House" single to August 14th, 1995 to go head-to-head with the release of Oasis' "Roll With It"."Country House" sold 274,000 singles to 216,000 of "Roll With It" and Blur won that battle, but as Oasis ultimately outsold them overall, and because Blur didn't impact the US market the way Oasis did, some suggest Blur lost the "war". But - going by last man standing - Blur's triumphant comeback this year has caused some to reconsider that appraisal.


It's All A-Blur...


A funny thing happened on my way to acquiring Blur albums once a month. In July, I was comparing notes with a record promoting friend of mine on recent music purchases. Working in the industry, we can get our hands on many new things promotionally - free. But both he and I indulge musical passions by picking up music that is (presumably) not available through channels. He told me about some picture discs he'd picked up. I related buying my deluxe Blur discs from the UK - had just gotten The Great Escape in a few days earlier.
     "Did you open it?!?" he asked.
     "What?" I said. "Yeah. I mean, I wanted to listen to it. Why?"
     "Dude - we handled those reissues here in the states," he told me. "I still have some here in my office. What do you need?"

So this happened:

Suddenly, I had everything by Blur. Everything. I'd even bought & downloaded their 2012 reunion single "Under the Westway"/"The Puritan" back in May.

It was a little overwhelming!

As August rolled along I began listening to the 1997 self-titled album. Charmed by the Brit Pop albums, this left turn was a little jarring at first. At the time, Blur had absorbed the noisy new rock of Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. and other underground indie bands busting out in the States. It's a different sound for the band.

Though "Song 2" was certainly familiar. And "On Your Own" was already a new favorite thanks to the AV Club mix. "Beetlebum" grew on me quickly. But... I was kind of reaching a saturation point. There was only so much I could take in. I tried Modern Life Is Rubbish next, only listened a couple of times. Then 13, which does have some beautiful music on it in "Tender" and "Coffee and TV". Listened a few times. I do keep going back to those tunes, but not the album as a whole.

The "Coffee and TV" video has become a fan-favorite "classic" - the milk carton ("Milky"?) keeps showing up on merch and in promo art!



My brief foray into 13 was followed by a listen through of the remastered Leisure -  the original U.S. version of which I'd ripped back in May. Oddly, the U.S. release didn't include "Sing" - later made famous in the soundtrack for Trainspotting - and the tracks were in a different order. As you might guess from it's best-known tune "There's No Other Way" it's a very Manchester-Scene ("Madchester") sounding album.

"She's So High" is another fun track, but neither it nor the album gives a true indication of where the band would go as they matured. Albarn said if he had his way, people would forget about the album and Blur would begin with "Popscene" - the next single after the Leisure album (found on disc two of the reissued Modern Life Is Rubbish, conveniently enough. Albarn's comment leads off that reissue's liner notes).

If Albarn is into editing the band's career, he might want to leave off 2003's Think Tank on the other end. There were distractions and change as they made it. Albarn had started Gorillaz. And Graham Coxon, fresh out of rehab and late on the scene to record, was asked to leave the band as they started making Think Tank, turning Blur into a three piece.

I didn't listen to it much - it's an odd-sounding album. The AV Club mix didn't include any songs from the album, though I originally added 2 at the end of my mix based on suggestions in the comments to the article, "Ambulance" and "Out of Time". I don't know many Blur fans who care for the album, though songs from it are well-received live. Overall, never quite got into Think Tank - a few tracks but not the whole thing.

But The Magic Whip continued to charm. "Ong Ong" was released mid-summer as a single with a goofy, gaming-inspired video and a sing-along chorus: "La la la la la la la la la la la la - I Wanna Be With You." "Ghost Ship" was another track I hit repeat on a few times. But it was "Pyongyang" I found myself mesmerized by as summer came to an end: "And the pink light that bathed the Great Leaders is fading..." - a lyrical, haunting reminiscence of Albarn's trip to North Korea.


Blur Plays MSG in NYC


September turned into October and the live show approached. Invited my Blur "cheerleader" Rachel to join me for the show - as huge a fan as she was back in the '90s, she'd never seen them live! We made our way into New York City to Madison Square Garden and saw an incredible concert, one of only two shows Blur played here in the States. We had killer seats - as you can see from Rachel's picture.


The concert was almost the culmination of an incredible year of getting to know Blur. Heard so many songs I'd hoped to hear live, including "End of A Century" and "This Is A Low". And though I'm not used to going to shows that get written up and reviewed in NME and Rolling Stone, there it was! The critics seemed to feel it was as much of a triumph as I did. But the night wasn't over yet. As guests of the band and the label, we were invited to the after party at a basement level ping-pong themed club.

Though we had bracelets to get inside the party, we didn't have laminates to get into the "special room" off the main area, though Rachel tried. She was bumming out about that when I tapped her on the shoulder and pointed out who was playing ping-pong next to us - Damon Albarn!

Rachel later threw caution to the wind after Damon finished playing and went up and said hello to him as he mingled. She had to. I later realized I had to as well, and walked up at an opportune time. Introduced myself and talked a little about The Point, and playing their stuff on the radio. Told him I was a late convert to his music, wasn't clued in back in the 90s. When I told him it was "Mr Tembo" that first got me into his music in the year past, he brightened up.

"I played it for him, for Mr. Tembo!" Albarn said, and he told me the story. He'd gone back over to Africa this past summer to Mr. Tembo's village to play for them. The elephant at first ignored him, but Damon said as he played his tune the elephant came over and got its trunk right in Damon's face, sniffing his breath!

We chatted a little more about the elephant, the trip and the song. On a whim, I asked him if he liked Science Fiction. "Some," he said. I got a VATICAN ASSASSIN card out of my wallet and handed it to him. "When I'm not on the radio, I write science fiction - that was my first novel and I give it away for free. I've enjoyed your creativity. Thought I'd share some of mine with you, if you're interested." He took the card.

"That's what it's all about, isn't it?" He grinned. Didn't want to take up more of his time, so I smiled, said thanks and began to turn to walk away. "Good meeting you, Late Convert," he said. I said "you too, Damon," or something like that and went on my way. At least, that's how I remember it now. May have smoothed over the rough spots in my memory.

Would have liked to have met Graham Coxon - I've become a big fan of his guitar work - but he was nowhere to be seen (Rachel was sure he was hiding in the "special room", but we never did find out). Later had a chance to say hello to drummer Dave Rowntree in passing, but it wasn't as cool as meeting and talking to Damon. That was the true culmination of my Blur experience of 2015, from knowing nearly nothing about them to full-immersion fan in less than a year, from knowing a couple tunes to seeing them live at MSG and meeting the lead singer at the after party. Nice.

My Blur-y year!


For those who might like to check out more music from Blur, I've put together a YouTube playlist. Thanks again to Marah Eakin and AV Club for the "Power Hour" on Blur - this playlist is influenced by their introductory mix. Click and enjoy!