Monday, August 20, 2012
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BLUR - 21 box set
So, who won? Oasis or Blur? Of course, it doesn't matter and never did, but the tabloid battle did make it across the pond, where we knew more about the supposed feud than the music. I suppose one could argue Blur came out a bit better, without the internal splits and brotherly bickering, and without a trail of disappointing albums that trickled on for another decade. Blur only did seven discs in their career, and Damon Albarn has certainly had the most interesting and fulfilling career, at least in terms of art, as opposed to the same old same old for the Gallagher Brothers.
I couldn't begin to swallow the idea of a massive, career-spanning Oasis box, such was the spottiness of most of their albums. And initially, I was highly skeptical of this big block of Blur. But now that I've made it through, I've got to say there's an interesting career here, most of which passed the bulk of us by. Can you take 21 discs though? Huh? Huh? That's what you find inside, somehow the seven original discs being tripled. Each proper album has a full, and longer disc of b-sides and live tracks accompanying it. That's 14. Then there are four CD's, or a full normal boxed set, of demos, alternates and early versions from their career. Finally, there are 3 DVD's as well, live concerts from various eras. That makes 21. Not to be chintzy, they also throw in a 45 RPM disc, with one more live cut. And then it gets ridiculous, because there's also a code to unlock more material on-line. Ah, I think I've reached my Blur limit, but thanks.
What makes this group so interesting, especially in retrospect, is how different each album is, and how restless they were. At the start of the '90's, and their debut Leisure, they were a typically noisy and brash pop band, fast and fun and furious, but with lots of brains. By the next one, Modern Life Is Rubbish, a sound had emerged, and it was something that had been missing in England since the end of New Wave, a proud British release. They were emerging as heirs to The Kinks, albeit crossed with The Jam, proudly reviving that tradition. At the same time, Oasis arrived with its blatant Beatles influence, and BritPop was born. By the next one, Parklife, the band hit #1, and they would repeat that through the rest of the decade with each subsequent release. But already they were experimenting. The title cut featured spoken-word ramblings about living around the park, an older, fading look at British life. There were moments of music hall, and blasts of noise, editing and silliness. Albarn's tongue was in his cheek much of the time, and the English in-jokes were much of the fun.
The Great Escape followed, and this was the very height of the chart battles with Oasis. Although Blur won the race to #1, it put an image in the public's view, that of Oasis being the rock band with street toughs, Blur the artsy ones, middle class. It wasn't quite like that, but made a good story. And The Great Escape was certainly full of fancy, with horns and strings and complications. It was a disc of British characters, with a new cast each tune. But the price of fame was taking its toll on the group, especially guitar player Graham Coxon, who hated the fuss and rebelled at the success. The next recordings saw him wanting to return to the roots of the group, be loud and cranky and obstinate. It would just be called Blur, in 1997. And of all things, the very loud and back-to-basics big guitar sound of Song 2 became an even bigger hit than the rest, actually cracking the North American market. The stripped-down but still gorgeous Beetlebum wasn't far behind. They had thumbed their noses at BritPop, and still were the kings of it.
There was nothing to do then, but go further. The next disc, 13, was full of contradictions, with the aching Tender giving way to wildness at other points. Anything was fair game in the tracks, and it is almost impossible to categorize. If anything, the group was showing all their sides at once. There was just too much going on. Coxon was a mess, and would remain a problem until entering rehab, and being forced to leave the sessions for the group's final effort, Think Tank in 2003. By this time, Albarn was onto other things, including Gorillaz, and Blur's days were numbered anyway. Think Tank seems now to be a denouement, with the mellow material in Coxon's absence a relief after the chaos.
Why, there's even a happy ending, with a full reunion for gigs starting in 2009, a couple of new singles, threats of an album, and a jolly old showing at The Olympics. At $200, this is actually quite a good deal, what with the 21 discs, the hard-bound book and the masses of stuff unavailable elsewhere. Usually these things are for hard-core fans, already so invested in the group that another $200 isn't that outrageous. But it's also a very good way to start listening to them seriously, if you only own Parklife and Blur and a hits set. Like The Kinks before them, once you break past the Anglo-centric invisible barrier, there are plenty of riches. Better than Oasis, too.