BEST OF 2015: 8.Blur ‘The Magic Whip’

Looking back at the Blur of twenty years ago, the acceleration from the sound of ‘The Great Escape’ onwards seems ridiculous. To go from ‘Mr Robinson’s Quango’ to ‘B.L.U.R.E.M.I.’ in four years is still hard to fathom, although the divergence and dirtying of their sound coincided with a similar breakdown in relations. The widely accepted narrative of the time was that the scuzzier guitars, American influences and partial drift from conventional song structures was a sop to a very pissed off Graham Coxon, who felt like they’d overplayed the “oompah” card at the height of Britpop. By the time sessions commenced for what was to become 2003’s ‘Think Tank’, Coxon’s contributions to the new songs were considered disruptive, suggesting that he had no desire to curtail the trajectory embarked upon with the band’s self-titled 1997 release.


The resulting split, which wasn’t to be healed until 2009’s reconciliation tour, nearly killed off Blur, the three remaining members realising that without Graham on stage it just wasn’t right. Damon Albarn recently dismissed the Coxon-less album, saying it “wasn’t really a Blur record” and so let us proceed with the idea that ‘The Magic Whip’ should instead be viewed as the successor to 1999’s ‘13’. All of which makes it rather remarkable to encounter an album comprised of twelve relatively conventional, often beautiful, songs.

 Having been recorded in five unexpectedly free days in Hong Kong back in 2013, they were knocked into shape by Coxon towards the end of last year. The guitarist has talked of feeling like he owed the band something because of how it originally ended and how the building of ‘The Magic Whip’ was partly a repaying of that debt.  This might go some way to explaining the less destructive and far more unifying approach to these songs. Add in Stephen Street, deservedly revered producer and the man behind the desk of four previous Blur records, and you get the band’s most natural sounding album in over twenty years.

Of course, this tremendous back-story would be worthless if they didn’t have the songs. Essentially knocking about ideas that Damon had with him on tour, recorded into his iPad as he has done for some time, it’s hard to believe the loose and limited studio session yielded such finery as ‘My Terracotta Heart’ and ‘Pyongyang’. While the 2010 single ‘Fool’s Day’ and 2012’s double-header of ‘Under The Westway’ and ‘The Puritan’ belied their less than thorough gestations, ‘The Magic Whip’ feels far more like a legitimate and utterly compelling next chapter.

Ghost Ship’ has a languid, summery polish to it that fairly saunters along, while ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ evolves around both a military beat and a murky vocal that are truly striking. Both break new ground for Blur, something which one suspects is in part to do with it being built around demos by a very different Damon to the last time he worked with the band. Much has been said about the reference points already and it should come as no surprise to anyone that there are moments evoking thoughts of Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Albarn’s solo effort from last year. There is a common denominator, after all, but what is noticeable and so utterly, utterly joyous is the presence of Coxon.

There’s a moment just before the three-minute mark in ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ where a distant, reverbed Graham is unexpectedly beamed in to complete Albarn’s sentence. It’s one of the record’s true hairs-on-the-back of the neck moments and it serves to perfectly capture the musical alchemy that exists when the pair are in each other’s company. With Coxon and Street shaping the songs prior to Albarn crafting the words, it’s interesting that the aching guitar of ‘My Terracotta Heart’ perfectly matches a lyric exploring the past troubles of the pair’s relationship. They have created something that is as beautiful as any Albarn heartache song has ever previously sounded.

Lonesome Street’, ‘Go Out’ and ‘I Broadcast’, the album’s most brash moments, seem like logical evolutions of moments from the band’s past. The first of that list straddles the sound of ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Blur’, while the song that offered the first taste of ‘The Magic Whip’, ‘Go Out’, occupies a ground somewhere between ‘On Your Own’ and ‘Music Is My Radar’ which, as any fool knows, can only be a very fine thing indeed. The last of that triumvirate is a wonderfully chaotic, riff-driven thing, seemingly specifically designed for joyous pogoing and wild leaping from Albarn when performed live. It captures the emphatic rattle that some of the non-album tracks from the ‘Think Tank’ era were aiming for but never quite achieved. It underlines, hopefully for the final time, that Blur only really work with Coxon there to elevate them to greatness.

Ong Ong’ is a quite staggeringly effective earworm, all la-la-la-la-las, looped handclap percussion and the line “I wanna be with you” in its chorus. It’s a wonderfully simple pleasure, reigniting the mass-singalong knack that served the band so well whenever performing ‘Tender’ during previous reunion shows. Most intriguing is ‘Ice Cream Man’, with repetitive bleeps and burbles taking the place of actual chimes and a lyric which slowly evolves into Albarn’s memories of the Tiananmen Square protests. Lyrically and musically varied, it is a perfect encapsulation of what ‘The Magic Whip’ has to offer.

In returning, Blur have progressed. This is not a band revisiting past glories, indeed they’ve said recently that they felt there was no scope to do further gigs without new music to play. Shorn of expectation and match fit in the middle of a long tour, four friends found each other again.

Bloody Awful Poetry – The Importance Of Lyrics

I’ve never really been a lyrics person. The melodies are what bring this boy to the yard. Even tiny moments where a piano puts in a brief appearance thirty seconds from the end of a song or when two voices combine to momentarily melt my innards tend to take precedence over a witty couplet or a heartfelt character assassination. Which is not to say I don’t appreciate fine word-smithery, more that it’s something I gradually acknowledge as the music becomes familiar. Whilst writing about John Grant‘s new album recently, it occurred to me that much of his coruscating honesty had already registered. So, am I paying more attention to artists whose lyrics I know I enjoy, in the same way I try not to listen too carefully to others, or do well-crafted words leap out at you uninvited?

These thoughts were prompted whilst finally reading Paul Whitelaw’s excellent biography of Belle & Sebastian which has unfairly sat on various shelves for several years. The author explores the time when Stuart Murdoch and Isobel Campbell’s relationship hit the skids and the latter prepared for an exit from the band she’d once loved. Having been portrayed as something of a pushover, accommodating Campbell’s numerous whims, Murdoch finally snaps and pours out his angry heart into several brutal lyrics: lyrics to songs on which Campbell actually performs. ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’ juxtaposes a typically jaunty melody with this blunt assessment, “You like yourself and you like men to kiss your arse, expensive clothes; please stop me there. I think I’m waking up to us: we’re a disaster.” I’ve listened to that song plenty of times and noted the acerbic tones in passing, but never before had I really stopped and processed the cumulative sense of bereavement and bitterness in that lyric.

Waking Up

Click the images or scroll down for a Spotify playlist linked to this piece

When a lyric clicks – whether on first or fiftieth play – I tend to cling to a perfectly quotable line or two, keenly anticipating their arrival whenever I hear the song in full thereafter. This, of course, is once again slightly missing the point. The subsequent explanation in ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’ softens the blows somewhat, but for me a well chosen couplet functions much like a musical hook: a euphoric moment in a track which sets my brain alight.

There are plenty of narrative lyrics which hold my attention from start to finish – not least Clarence Carter’s ever wonderful ‘Patches’, to give but one splendid example – but I was raised on a diet of early 90s chart music and then the linguistic pillage that was Britpop. When Rick Witter and Noel Gallagher are foisting their words into your ears, sometimes it’s better to just zone out. Britpop was all about the tunes – most of them stolen – and bellowing out nonsense like “slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball” or “he takes all manner of pills and piles up analyst bills in the country” without any great focus on what the fuck it actually meant. It’s why Jarvis stood out so prominently at the time and the focus was kept largely on the riffs. As an impressionable teenager, I swallowed the Manics’ shtick whole and rather liked the idea of moulding my own sense of my intelligence via their raft of sleeve quotations and passing literary references in interviews. They were my saving grace, my flag in the summit, my band. Looking back now, still very much in love with most of their catalogue, I’m thankfully rather less possessed of a sense of my own self-importance and can see that endless droning about the clever quotation at the end of ‘The Masses Against The Classes’ and the painful need to try and find some merit in the ill-advised of ‘S.Y.M.M.’ was very much of the moment.

This more mature listener can now be found sniggering at pop smashes laced with not especially subtle innuendo. I shared a house whilst at uni with a lad with a slighty unhealthy obsession with Rachel Stevens and can still remember the day he found out about her webbed toes. His ungentlemanly fantasies were never quite the same again, although I suspect they were reignited a few years later when, chasing credibility, headlines and internet chatter, she released ‘I Said Never Again (But Here We Are).’ It doesn’t take a professor of the double entendre to spot the conceit at the heart of this particular lyric, perhaps best exemplified by the demure couplet: “I feel such a traitor, oh I let you in my back door.” Quite. And while I can barely remember more than the odd line of Dylan’s vast and exceptionally worth back catalogue, I am forever blessed with the memory of a member of S Club 7’s paean to anal sex.


I like to think that the various characters responsible for writing many of the nation’s biggest chart hits spend hours daring each other to get ludicrous phrases into their lyrics in the same way we also used to offer a quid to anyone who could manoeuvre fatuous pairings like ‘irate penguin’ into history essays*. Where else could things like ‘let’s go, Eskimo’ come from? Indeed, Girls Aloud deserve a special mention at this point. I loved almost all of their singles as a result of them being utterly and irresistibly catchy, but the lyrics were all over the place. The Rachel Stevens award for pop music traitordom went to ‘Something Kinda Ooooh’ for ‘“Something kinda ooooh, bumpin’ in the back room,” whilst recent best of filler, ‘Beautiful Cause You Love Me’ contained one of the most unintentionally hilarious couplets ever to make the charts: “Standin’ over the basin, I’ve been washin’ my face in.” Oh yes! Still, isn’t it funny how I’m so willing to make excuses for that, raising an eyebrow and proffering a wry smirk, but get my critical arsenal out for the likes of Shed Seven and the Stereophonics?

It’s possible that I draw a line somewhere between brash pop music and the notional integrity of indie rock, but even writing that makes me think that’s quite a pathetic standpoint to occupy. And, frankly, those two bands are very easy targets. I did own a few Sheds singles at one point but quickly grew tired of lyrics like: “She left me with no hope, it’s all gone up in smoke. She didn’t invite me, rode off with a donkey.” Truly, what the fuck is that all about? But is it any different to talk of Eskimos or pushing the button? Some bands even make a virtue of their lyrics being woefully undercooked, Kelly Jones seeming quite happy to dish up baffling non sequiturs for a bit of rawk gravel every couple of years. For recent comeback merchants Suede, it seemed that petroleum and gasoline were never far from Brett Anderson’s lyric book.

During their first reinvention, the band released the glorious ‘Beautiful Ones’, which kept Shell happy and managed a burst of imagery which might go down well with Rachel Stevens’ team of writers: “high on diesel and gasoline psycho for drum machine, shaking their bits to the hits.” The true nadir came during the utterly off their tits phase of ‘Head Music’ and ‘She’s In Fashion’ with the profound couplet “and she’s the taste of gasoline, and she’s as similar as you can get to the shape of a cigarette.” Everyone knew those lyrics were shit, but everyone nodded along and enjoyed the tunes. Suede would be mocked mercilessly for such slap-dash songwriting in the same piece as being awarded Single Of The Week. It’s just what they do, you see. ‘Bloodsports’ would suggest that things haven’t changed too much during the cleaner years.

Suede BO

But what of the bands almost immune from criticism, revered at every turn and held aloft as artists of a generation? Clearly, Radiohead have come out with some very peculiar lyrics over the years but I took as my example one of my absolute favourite songs of theirs, ‘Weird Fishes / Arpeggi’. I love it, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere, particularly because of the vocal interplay in the third verse. Couldn’t give the most minute of shits what is being said, I just go all wobbly when that moment hits. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. And what of the song’s lyrics? “I get eaten by the worms and weird fishes,” is neither especially good nor especially bad, but in the track itself Thom is doing his level best to use his vocal as simply another instrument anyway. Straight out of the Michael Stipe school of art-rock mumbling and in no way detrimental to the power of the song.

But look back at old school folders and you’ll see band logos and fragments of lyrics all over the place. Do they matter more at that age? Is our increasing exposure to pretty much anything ever made as soon as we want it robbing us of the opportunity to absorb the true heart of the songs we hear? The feeling of being blindsided by a great bit of writing is still one of joyous intensity, whatever the frequency. I can still remember listening to ‘Karen’ by The National and thinking, ‘hang on a minute. What did he just sing?’ at the lyric, “It’s a common fetish for a doting man, to ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand.” How’s that for imagery, tutu jumpers and back door monitors?

Just as the whole ‘but what does it really mean?’ question at school nearly put me off poetry for life, I increasingly realise that I don’t need to understand what they’re on about, preferring to simply bask in the occasional majesty that nonchalantly drifts out of the speakers. Whether it’s new stuff like Martin Rossiter’s ‘I Must Be Jesus’ – “If life’s unkind, then you must be divine. And, yes, I do mean literally” – or the returning triumph of an old friend – “Oh, I didn’t realise that you wrote poetry. I didn’t realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr. Shankly” – I rather like not looking too hard. If it takes a rock biog to finally make me realise that something clever has been going on under my nose without me ever noticing, then so be it. The alchemy of great songwriting is way out of my reach and, while I’m never shy about casting the first (or second or third) stone when critiquing a record, I’ll always keep listening with the hope and expectation that I will find something truly magical. No problem so far.

*E.g. Disraeli was left, like an irate penguin, snubbed by Peel despite Gladstone’s appointment to the government

BEST OF 2012: Dusted Off

What a year for reissues it has been, with several labels delivering an almost impolite run of quality and some bands getting the deluxe treatment. Paul McCartney‘s archive series continued with the staggeringly lovely ‘Ram’ boxset, with a genuinely interesting book, delicately reproduced photos and the album in stereo, mono and lounge jazz versions. It’s one of Macca’s finest and the box is something to cherish. A staggered release was awarded to Can‘s ‘The Lost Tapes‘, initially appearing as CD only and then as a far more expensive vinyl box ‘due to overwhelming demand’. Which, of course, they couldn’t have predicted. Nope. Making vinyl fans but twice was simply a quirk of fate. Honest. Luckily, the music is largely fantastic and this is not some excuse to peddle muffled, mono cassette recordings of crap demos. It might even prove quite a useful starting point for the uninitiated.

Elbow and Blur had their entire studio album catalogue popped back out on heavyweight vinyl this year, including a superb box for the former which had every album beautifully mastered on 2x45rpm vinyl. I believe it’s already becoming scarce. Don’t miss it. As for Blur, the vinyl mastering was largely great, but it was the ‘21‘ twenty one disc box which truly excited. Bonus tracks, b sides, rare footage and a gorgeous book made it one of my out and out highlights of the year. However, if you’re a Blur fan, you won’t need telling and if you’re not, I imagine 21 discs of them would feel like punching yourself in the face with a sharpened tent peg. Also, getting the vinyl treatment was the entire Beatles catalogue. There are those banging on about sources but, to these ears, they sound great. Bass is warm, voices are clear and drums are crisp. However, a word of caution. Quality control on the US vinyl is apparently significantly poorer than on the UK pressings, so purchase wisely.

One of the great pleasures of being a vinyl purchaser in 2012 was being on the receiving end of some of the most lovingly crafted, beautifully packaged and expertly researched reissues music fans have ever witnessed. Chief amongst the labels delivering such beauties are Light In The Attic. Having already delivered several essential Lee Hazlewood titles, the curious folky-funk of Donnie and Joe Emerson, a second Michael Chapman reissue, a stunning Wendy Rene overview, a double white vinyl set for the‘Searching For Sugarman’ soundtrack, a glorious Stax 7″ box set and the truly outstanding ‘Country Funk’compilation, the latest gem out of the pressing plants is ‘A Fire Somewhere’ by Ray Stinnett. Having sat, shelved and unreleased, for forty-two years, this is less a reissue and more an old new release.

Blessed with a country twang and a sprinkling of languid psych jams, this album is one likely to appeal to fans of everyone from Big Star through to Leonard Cohen. It has that timeless sound that LITA aficionados will by now be used to, sounding like a record you’ve always known by the time it gets its second spin, managing to tick the singer/songwriter box en route to some cosmic jams and pensive guitar licks. Stinnett’s vocals – a less wilfully obtuse Tim Buckley at times – are captivating, bending and lurching as each track requires. Lolloping country funk ballad, ‘Honey Suckle Song‘ is an absolute joy and will be on your next compilation, almost certainly. Having been promised by A&M that he would be a star, they took the curious decision of leaving the record to gather dust on the shelves and, until now, it hasn’t seen the light of the day. While there were many magnificent old ‘new’ records this year, this one deserves a nod more than most.

Record Store Day – Tales From The Shop Floor

Record Store Day is a fundamentally good thing. It gets people talking about shops which had otherwise only been mentioned as part of features on the death of music retail and, in light of the number of independent stores closing finally reaching a plateau, demonstrates that many of these emporia still have plenty of life in them. Back in February, I raised a few concerns about how the stock was distributed and exactly how keen the labels are to actually help out the nation’s indies. Since then, I’ve been in touch with record shops across Britain to seek some clarification and there’s plenty to tell. The NME having hosted an intellectually flatulent piece about record shops in recent days, I’m keen to stress that any moans in this article are not directed at the record shops themselves and I urge you to get yourself down to your local palace of glittering delights this weekend and spend as much as your food budget will allow. In return for their honesty, I intend to keep all contributors to this article entirely anonymous.

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With the list of exclusives for this year’s event now at over 200 items, it gives the impression that the big labels are falling over themselves to help out the indie stores of the UK. However, prices seem to be rocketing and several retailers suggested that labels were “pushing their luck” with one observing that these labels “spend 364 days a year trying to take business away from shops.” The massive reduction in the amount of sale or return stock, meaning that shops either pay for things upfront or don’t get any copies, increases the risk factor in buying big or even buying at all in the case of some of the deluxe items. For Record Store Day, nothing is sale or return. With a Saint Etienne box set containing only six 7” singles clocking it at almost £50, it’s a costly gamble to take in a time when the economy is supposed to be on its knees. Some shops have reduced their dealings with the big labels, with one owner telling me, “when shops can consistently order from Amazon cheaper, and receive the stock quicker, it makes ordering from the majors a luxury they can’t afford.” Another store took up the story: ”The majors look like they’re helping, by whacking out these releases, but come the Monday we’re still meant to try and sell the latest Universal releases for £13.90 (standard mark up) when you know Tesco will have it for a tenner or less.  The EMI, Sony and Universal sections in my shop are now tiny, I don’t order CDs from them unless I have to.” While I continue to believe that it is crucially important for music fans to support their local record shops on April 16th, it seems pretty clear that the big labels are only bothered when they have high-priced, attention-grabbing stock to shift.

Continue reading “Record Store Day – Tales From The Shop Floor”

Record Store Day: If you’re gonna do it, do it right

A number of independent record shop owners have told me of late that by surviving the really dark days when music retailers were closing left, right and centre, they’ve found circumstances have improved a little. For a start, once we’re down to the bare minimum, we need every record shop we can get and, secondly, with HMV seemingly now of the opinion that music is toxic, they’re the only places to get hold of anything even slightly obscure. I’m thrilled when I hear of shops extending their leases or expanding their business as it gives music fans the length and breadth of the country hope. As these centres of cultural relevance increasingly become museum exhibits for the media to visit once or twice a year for “is music retail dying?” style stories, the push continues to engage local communities. At the forefront of this is Record Store Day, an annual celebration of the humble indie store, peppered with exclusive releases and live performances. It is, fundamentally, a marvellous idea and last year was the point where it really took off here in the UK.

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The 2010 event was catapulted into the spotlight with the news of a number of very limited 7” vinyl releases by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pet Shop Boys and Blur. Much was made of the fact that there were only 1000 copies to be distributed across the UK’s independent record shops and how rare they would instantly be. Sure enough, people who never really bothered to visit their local record shop were now interested in popping in. A good thing, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Those who ambled in at 11am, having seen some news coverage and wanting to pick up a few interesting bits and bobs will have been left a little deflated. For all but the biggest shops, the really limited stock was gone within minutes, at most an hour. Plenty of other people who never visit the shop were out in force a little earlier too, queuing up to grab their copies of the truly limited titles before the frantic dash home to get them straight up on eBay. I wonder how many of these people have popped back in over the last ten months to purchase a few new releases or to dig through the vinyl racks. In the whole of the East Midlands, I’m fairly certain there were no more than 10-15 copies of Blur’s ‘Fool’s Day’. Partly this is down to there being less record shops than there used to be, but also due to relatively sizeable stores having one or two copies only. Continue reading “Record Store Day: If you’re gonna do it, do it right”

A Week With… 15. Blur – Fool’s Day

Setting out a little before seven in the morning seemed a relatively minor undertaking considering the prize that was there for the taking. The week beforehand had witnessed a military operation involving communication with a number of potential suppliers. The final decision had been left until the Friday once quantities had been confirmed. Seven years on from the band’s last album and almost ten since their last single as a four piece, Blur had reunited to record and release a new song.

And so I found myself stood outside a record shop at ten to eight on a not especially warm April morning, reading ‘Love And Poison’, a book about Suede, and listening to the new Ed Harcourt album on the increasingly erratic iPod. This, I can now confirm, is a way of ensuring more than a couple of odd looks from passers-by. Having strategically chosen a shop less likely to have an enormous queue from the early hours of the morning, it meant I was the solitary oddball standing in the doorway of a quite demonstrably closed shop. The staff started to arrive around forty minutes prior to opening and engaged me in a brief chat about what I was after. With twenty minutes to go, I’m advised to head over to the other entrance to the shop, via the city’s gigantic shopping centre, as it’s the door they’ll open first, it’ll be a little warmer for me and because there was another lady waiting there. It was said in a friendly fashion and so I was almost entirely not paranoid about making the switch. Still, I couldn’t breathe easy until the shutters were up and the record was in my hands. They had two copies. My partner in queuing, who was, quite impressively, even more anxious than me, had also established this fact in advance and, as the clock ticked past nine, our pawing at the shutters grew ever more rabid. Finally, some hundred and eighty seconds later, the shop declared itself open for business and the two rabid Blur fans were rewarded. ‘Fool’s Day’ was mine!

blur fools day

It’s two weeks on from that rather surreal day, one of the most memorable record shopping trips I’ve ever had, and I am happy to say that the thrill of the chase is minor when put alongside the thrill of the music. ‘Fool’s Day’ is a marvellous pop track, shambling along like a frivolous The Good, The Bad & The Queen track, with faint echoes of the wonder of the ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ period. Lyrically, it’s a song about itself, with Damon recounting his day, en route to the studio. While acknowledging the potential pitfalls of reconvening, the euphoric tone which pervades this track makes me grin like an imbecile. Talk of walking past “the pound shop Woolworths” is one of my preferred lyrics, capturing the peculiar melancholy I still feel every time I see a defunt, or even bargain shop rebranded, branch of the store where so many of us bought our first records. There are many more impressive lyrics than that, but I’m almost tempted to argue that they are largely overshadowed by Graham’s magical guitar break. It ain’t complex, it ain’t clever but it’s pretty much bloody perfect.

I had resigned myself to the fact that last year’s reunion tour was the end of something, finally putting to bed previously unfinished business. Watching ‘No Distance Left To Run’ and listening to Damon in recent interviews to promote the Gorillaz album, it really did seem like there was no point even clinging on to desperate hopes of more from the band that mean so much to so many. But there I was, in Avalanche Records in Glasgow, just over a week before Record Store Day took place, being told by the shop’s staff that there would be a new Blur 7” in eights days’ time. In light of the song’s quality and subsequent comments from Damon that recording one off songs in the future is not something to which he’s averse, all bets are off and I’m clinging on to hope.

As I type, ‘Live At Hyde Park’, the bonus disc with the ‘No Distance Left To Run’ DVD, is playing and hugely fond memories of a sweaty night in Wolverhampton last June are being revived. They were, are, a magnificent band and those reunion performances were genuinely mesmerising events. The interplay between Damon and Graham on stage is thrilling to see while the reaction of the crowd only serves to underline how seismically important they were within the British music scene in the nineties. Even reprobates like ‘Country House’ sound worldbeating in this context, while genuine classics like ‘Beetlebum’ and ‘The Universal’ will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. We all know about the ‘Tender’ singalongs now, but the band themselves admitted some surprise at just how well received it was, prompting gargantuan audience participation at every gig and, most famously, at Glastonbury. Clips from that performance appear in ‘No Distance Left To Run’, the documentary film which manages to strike the perfect balance between old and new, splicing together archive footage and recent live material to great effect.

For what must now be getting on for the fifth or sixth time in less than eighteen months, ‘Fool’s Day’ made me fall in love with Blur all over again and they’re probably now as consistent a part of my regular listening as they were fifteen years ago. Some reactions to this sole new track have been rather sniffy, but I think it helps to keep in mind that it was written, record and released with a couple of weeks and is only a single by virtue of being a special release for Record Store Day. It’s not the lead track from a new album, it’s not being held up as a triumphant statement of intent. It’s a show of support for a beleaguered industry, a tantalising glimpse for the fans and, I would posit, a quick way of establishing likely interest in any new material. But, despite all of this, it still turned out to be a sodding splendid little tune. Having been available as a free (and lossless, if you so desire) download once the physical singles were long gone, it will provide a very clear guide to just how many people want new music from Blur. I would hazard a guess that the number of downloads is none too shabby.

Whatever may yet appear, 2010 has been graced by two of the most exciting Blur products in some time. The DVD set is one of the most meticulously produced and out-and-out entertaining music video offerings I’ve ever encountered and, unlike so many of them, is perfectly suited to repeat viewings. Despite being almost a year on from the first of the reunion gigs, there’s still something genuinely magical about watching the four of them performing together again after all of the animosity, false starts and side-projects that seemed to have consigned the band to the annals of history. Clearly, it’s not worth £250 on eBay, but I’m so very glad to have my own physical copy of ‘Fool’s Day’. Quite apart from being an important addition to a sizeable collection, it is testament to a band returning as strong as it ever was, thrilling crowds nationwide and falling in love with music and each other again.

2010 inverted

05. Blur – Think Tank

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Alternate weekends during my time at university were spent travelling across the country on either National Express or Virgin Trains in order to see the good lady and these almost equally miserable journeys were livened to varying degrees by whatever music I had chosen to accompany me. Even though I had one of those shitty zip up wallets that housed about sixteen CDs – and, coincidentally, also scratched sixteen CDs – I often found myself rueing the fact that I hadn’t picked quite the right combination of tunes for that particular journey.

05 Blur

I can still vividly remember crawling through Sheffield as the gloom was beginning to descend, running alongside the tramlines in the outskirts of the city, as ‘Jets’ finally clicked. It is, by some stretch, the most unusual track on ‘Think Tank’ which, considering that ‘Think Tank’ is, by some stretch, the most unusual Blur album, makes it a relatively ‘difficult’ track by their standards. Jazzy and masterfully close to sounding directionless, it marauds around for over six minutes, creeping into your subconscious, laying siege to the space normally reserved for insistent but probably shit chart fodder. The only real lyrics are, “jets are like comets at sunset”. This, not especially profound, mantra whirls in and out across the whole track and it is, on the face of it, a completely nonsensical and inconsequential diversion. Despite this, I still find it great. And, as it’s probably my least favourite track on the album, it’s fair to say that the rest of ‘Think Tank’ means an awful lot to me.

Of course, all of the initial attention was given over to album closer, ‘Battery In Your Leg’, as it was the only track to feature the now ex-Blur member, Graham Coxon. It’s a beautiful and emotionally wrought way to bring things to a close but there’s a more remarkably emotive track on the record. ‘Out Of Time’ is simply one of the greatest songs of this disappearing decade. Heartbreakingly tender, beautifully sung and so deceptively simple, it is one of the band’s great singles and, while it is still cherished by many, I wonder if it might become one of those ‘Buried Treasure’ records that magazines for people with beards and American Express cards write about in twenty or thirty years from now. The record’s other singles, ‘Crazy Beat’ and ‘Good Song’ have little in common other than their home album. ‘Good Song’ lollops along, a sweet and sincere love song, Damon cooing, “you seem very beautiful to me.” ‘Crazy Beat’ was intended as the ‘pop smash’ on the album and it duly obliged by bulldozing its way past the competition to the heady heights of Number 18. Perhaps the top five placed ‘Out Of Time’ demonstrated that the Blur audience had grown up a bit and wanted something a little less noisy. Perhaps it confirmed that ‘Crazy Beat’ wasn’t quite as good as it should have been. Whatever, it sounded like (say this next bit in a Captain Darling voice) enormous FUN just now and I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for it, despite knowing it wasn’t really prime Albarn fodder.

The Norman Cook influenced ‘Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club’ and ‘Gene By Gene’ are surprisingly effective and have something of a late period Clash feel to them. I should say that this theory has been met with some confused looks in the past, so if you think I’m talking utter bollocks right now, it might be best to just skip to the next sentence and forget I said it. This record seems more dependant on repetition than any Blur album before it and yet I would argue that it works to its advantage. Two of the album’s standouts, ‘Ambulance’ and ‘Caravan’, both take a fairly circular route to getting the job done and create a spellbindingly hypnotic soundscape in both cases. The latter features some of Damon’s finest singing on the whole record, particularly the drawn out section when he explains that, “when it comes you’ll feel the weight of it.” While the band clearly took great musical strides on this album, critics too often overlook the extraordinary vocal performance from Albarn across these thirteen tracks.

It’s not a perfect album. I think that’s clear even from this glowing piece. ‘Blur’ probably edges it for me. At times, ‘Parklife’ still delivers that phenomenal hit it did all those years ago while ‘13’ is a record for very specific times in life. Despite all of this, ‘Think Tank’ is essentially my ‘adult’ Blur record. It’s the only one of their records to be released once I was out of my teenage years and the only one to truly soundtrack important events. The recent reunion was a joy and the euphoria I experienced as one of several thousand very sweaty people in Wolverhampton’s Civic Hall in late June will take some beating, but it runs the risk of almost writing this incarnation of Blur out of the history books. ‘Think Tank’ deserves much better.

In The Rain Of The Midlands

Received the Bad Lieutenant album, ‘Never Cry Another Tear’, on Saturday but it’s really struggling to grab my attention in any meaningful way. In terms of New Order offshoots, it’s more Electronic than Monaco, but I wouldn’t want to give anyone false hope. A few tracks are sung by Jake Evans, who Bernard seems to think has a pretty impressive voice. He’s not bad. He sounds like Danny from Embrace but sings like Jimi from Doves, if that makes any sense. Essentially, imagine Danny from Embrace but less honking, more tuneful and able to convey some emotions. There you go. The ten songs pootle along nicely enough, allowing the occasional wince at some Sumner-Gold when it comes to the lyrics. To be fair, it did occasionally evince hideous memories of Barney’s drunk tramp with burnt feet dancing, but I’m not sure that’s a review that anybody wants.

Thankfully, the rest of this week’s listening has been bloody brilliant. The live recordings of Blur at Hyde Park have finally arrived and don’t sound too terrible, despite Live Here Now‘s best efforts to go for monaural dustbin production values. Still, at least they’re here.

Like a new Massive Attack song, ‘Splitting The Atom’, which received its first play from the over-excitable Zane Lowe last night. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that it’s outrageously good and has the nerve to sound wonderful immediately and yet also suggest it could be a grower. The beat simply lollops along from start to finish as Daddy G, 3D and Horace Andy drift in and out at different points. It was recorded with Damon Albarn and there’s a hint of the languid musical leanings of non-Blur Albarn work of old. It’s hard to know what to say about it really, as it doesn’t conform to any sound from their previous records. This is, naturally, a good thing. Some of 3D’s vocal part does sound as intense as it did on ‘False Flags’ from the ‘Collected‘ album, while the sound of Daddy G again on a Massive Attack record is just wonderful. Provided you’re reading this within seven days of August 25th, you can click here and play it in reasonable quality, otherwise you’ll need to listen to it in Myspace quality. Which is to say, low quality.

I’m continuing to thoroughly enjoy the recently mentioned Pete Molinari EP, along with the new albums from Maps and Trashcan Sinatras, both of which I’ll endeavour to do proper reviews of shortly. In addition, Lily Allen‘s rather splendid, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ has been receiving another batch of repeat plays of late. It may well be the pop album of the year. Obviously, you can hear it via Spotify, but here’s a link to four ‘bonus’ tracks of hers that I’m rather fond of. Two remixes, and two covers. All that and she provided great entertainment as the lunchtime guest on TMS on Saturday, even if one numpty at The Observer didn’t quite get the right end of the stick, suggesting that Aggers‘ conduct was somehow pervy.


Perhaps most enjoyable of all though, has been the arrival of Sleepling States into my ears. I noticed that both Norm and Boomkat were fussing over the new album, ‘In The Gardens Of The North’, in last week’s reviews and so off I trundled to Spotify for a quick listen. After two songs I had the album ordered and after a couple more the previous album was in my shopping cart also. It may comes as no surprise to find that, the new album at least, is on Bella Union – do they ever get it wrong? – and it has appeared in the seven remaining record shops in the UK this very week. Markland Starkie (above) is apparently the man behind it all, not that I imagine such information in anyway helps you understand the music further. Both albums are worth your time and money, but ‘In The Gardens Of The North’ is a collection of absolutely beautiful music. Instruments seem to just drift in out of nowhere, often returning there with minimal fuss, songs meandering along in a slightly awkward, utterly captivating fashion. Clearly Starkie likes his slightly odd noises and some well placed drones only add to the overall atmosphere. The vocals, often layered and slightly fragile, are as much a part of the soundscape as the musical backdrop itself and everything combines to provide a hugely intimate listen. The phrase ‘headphone album’ gets bandied about a lot. It’s certainly true on this occasion. Not my most eloquent review, but should that have piqued your interest, the following pleasures are available to you:

‘In The Gardens Of North’ – latest album

‘There The Open Spaces’ – last album

‘Old vs New EP’ – 5 tracks from last year

Aren’t Waterstone’s points great?

Where to start? Having spent a week trolling around the South East of England, I have returned with copious new records and a sizeable pile of books. The Great British Holiday – bugger all use if you’re after a tan but pretty reliable for enhancing your CD collection. I’ll start where it ended, which was the purchase of Simon Goddard‘s hugely enjoyable masterwork on Morrissey, entitled ‘Mozipedia‘. Priced at £25, but easily found online for £14.99 delivered, it’s a gargantuan study of all things Moz, with entries for every song he’s been involved with, both as a solo artist and as a member of The Smiths. There are also numerous cultural entries to offer a fuller picture, something Goddard is keen to emphasise in his introduction, imploring readers to draw their own conclusions about Morrissey by piecing together whichever entries seem appropriate. The carefully ambiguous, not to mention beautifully written, overview of Moz with which Goddard opens proceedings does the required job of stirring up a passion for the man and his music and ensuring that the ensuing six hundred or so pages are a delight to dip into on numerous occasions. Highly recommended.*

Speaking of Morrissey, the infamous 1992 NME vs Moz race row was brought back to the public domain this week as a result of some pretty heated debate on the really rather splendid Andrew Collins‘ site. It all came about due to some chronically mediocre reporting in The Guardian about offensive comedians which took as its centrepiece Richard Herring‘s new show, ‘Hitler Moustache’. Whatever your take on the imagery used to promote the show, or indeed some of the material contained within, it would surely be difficult to conclude that Herring is anything even bordering on racist. You’d think. Not if you’re Brian Logan, critic for said newspaper, who had a pretty good go at trying to paint him as a racist, or at least somebody with a great deal of sympathy for racists. Andrew Collins, with whom Herring records an often mildly amusing podcast each week, naturally opted to defend his comedy chum via his blog. As part of the ensuing debate in the comments section, a couple of readers drew parallels with Andrew’s involvement in the NME cover story about Moz, Madstock and the Union Flag (Covered in detail in the aforementioned ‘Mozipedia’. ) This, in turn, led to Andrew posting an additional article on his blog in which he attempted clarify why the two events had little in common. This appears to have simply stirred up emotions further and it has since been removed. Instead, Andrew opted to wade in on a related discussion on the Morrissey Solo Forums, where he encountered both ends of the scale: the intelligent, articulate and thoroughly knowledgeable Moz fans and those for whom Mozipedia will function as little more than a door stop. Still, all very entertaining reading and worth an hour of your time, if you’re willing.

In other internet confusion this week, Live Here Now, the company responsible for doing immediate live recordings at gigs continued to show why they’re not really deserving of anybody’s money. A quick pootle round the web will reveal exactly how many times they’ve delayed issuing recordings well beyond the date stated in the past and so it has proved with Blur’s Hyde Park gigs. I’ve had a negative experience with this lot in the past also, opting for Richard Hawley‘s ‘Live At The Devil’s Arse’ concert CD, which arrived many weeks after the stated date. The Blur gigs were to be available for download a week after they had happened and the CDs would follow a week later. Now, even when I ordered, I was pretty certain that this wouldn’t be the case and simply sat back and waited for them to be crap. They didn’t disappoint. If you ordered the CDs, you were promised the downloads for free, as part of the deal. Those downloads were finally available this Wednesday, July 29th. As I’m sure you can spot, this is not a week after July 2nd and 3rd. Still, at least the downloads were here and grumbling can cease, eh? Well, no, actually. When the shop site first went live, it offered the recordings as CDs or ‘High Quality 320kbps’ mp3s. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, those buying the CDs would also receive the downloads free of charge. However, upon making the downloads available to those who had preordered this week, it became clear that the downloads were only 160kbps mp3s, hardly sufficient quality for a product that is being offered up professionally in 2009. As you might expect, numerous Blur fans opted to complain about this poorly encoded product and were offered the following explanation: “We do apologise for the wording of the download quality on the website and are sorry if this has caused confusion, however as per our help section as linked below the bundled/CD purchases of the shows will have received the 160kbps version of the download.” Fair enough. Except it’s not. This information was only added to the site in the last week or so and thus it is not an excuse for why the downloads are substandard. A quick search of Google, using the cache option, yesterday unveiled the original version of the help page, which simply referred to 320kbps mp3s. Frankly, if you’re going to be utter shit, be utter shit, but to then lie about it and twist the facts is pretty bloody pathetic. I’ll be glad to finally get my CDs whenever they actually emerge, but I won’t be using this bunch of unreliable, untrustworthy cretins again.

Having mentioned the acquisition of numerous records above, I feel like I should offer some additional comment, but there’s far too much to talk about in one go. Suffice to say, a wonderful time was had in Brighton, particularly in Resident Records – as good a record shop as I’ve been in since my beloved Reveal Records died some 18 months or so ago – but not to take anything away from Rounder, Wax Factor or Ape. A special mention the glorious, and rather charmingly named, The Record Shop in Amersham, at which I stopped en route, where I had an enjoyable compilation about Honest Jon’s compilations as I purchased ‘Marvellous Boy – Calypso From West Africa’ and reduced copies of two of the ‘London Is The Place For Me’ series. Something I don’t think I’m ever likely to get in my local branch of HMV. The inevitable trip to London was conducted and Rough Trade East did its best to lure me in many musical directions, with not inconsiderable success. Berwick Street was rather disappointing, with only Sounds Of The Universe (just off Berwick Street on Broadwick Street) tempting me to open my wallet. Still, plenty of good stuff was found and will be mentioned on here as I get my ears around it over the next few days. Weirdly, the album of the holiday was Maps‘ new one, ‘Turning The Mind’, which won’t be released until September 28th, but which I spent plenty of time with in order to write a review in the next day or two. It really is as good as you might have hoped. I’ll endeavour to say a bit more soon.

Finally, keep an eye on the ‘Special Purchase’ section in your nearest HMV for the next week or two, as some decent stuff has started to appear of late. The Portsmouth branch provided me with four of the ‘Talcum Soul’ series at £2 each, while the Southampton store had the best bargain, with a copy of Lewis Taylor‘s beautiful ‘The Lost Album’ also priced at only £2. Have a listen to that rather wonderful record here.

He’d help her if he existed

The last few weeks have been little short of musical alchemy. Every disc I lay my hand on turns out to be gold. Or at least quite good, but that sort of statement doesn’t lend itself to outrageously hyperbolic opening statements. Whether it’s a vinyl copy of Iron & Wine‘s ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’, Cinerama‘s ‘Va Va Voom’ or ‘God Help The Girl’ by Stuart Murdoch and his interchangeable sixties women, they’ve all been a delight to hear. In amongst all of this, I’ve been playing as much Blur as I can fit into any remaining gaps in the day. Lovely stuff. And yet, I continue to keep feeding CDs into iTunes. Why? I want them all to be on the iPod. Will I actually listen to them on the iPod? Clearly, that doesn’t matter, I simply need to keep ripping and ripping. Virtually all of my listening is done via my decent (but nowhere near as decent as I’d love it to be) separates system and yet ensuring that all of those great tracks are there for an emergency situation – provided I have the not-all-that-often-carried-around-with-me iPod to hand – seems essential.

It did get me to thinking about the luxury of choice and what this can mean sometimes. I actually had to make a conscious effort to give Eels, Malcolm Middleton and Kasabian another spin last weekend, just so that they didn’t get overlooked by other stuff. In what world is it acceptable for albums that have been out for all of seven minutes and twelve seconds to have already slipped down the pecking order. And, I hasten to add, they’re not shit. They haven’t slipped due to piss poor songwriting or mediocre vocals. Nope, I just have a constant stream of music pouring into my ears and, at times, it doesn’t really feel like I’m in charge of it. Another good example is the new Magnolia Electric Co album, which I was sent in order to review about four weeks back. I played it five or six times before attempting to put fingers to keyboard, but I haven’t listened to it much since. Not because it’s not brilliant (it’s one of Jason Molina‘s best ever records) but simply because there’s loads of other stuff. I’m an idiot. With each new jiffy bag or reasonably well structured vinyl mailer, I’m running off to switch the amp on, but how much time are all of these records getting? Is it only me that’s suffering from this problem? I imagine it afflicts people who download by the, er, external-hard-drive-load (really fucking catchy phrase) more than most, but there may be a few format obsessives like myself out there who have similar issues. Still, not to worry. I still seem to be falling in love with albums at same rate as always, so it must all be going in somehow.

Back to Blur for a moment. I would imagine you’ve had a look at some of the many videos I posted links to on the site last week by now and, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably still ever-so-slightly taken aback by just how great they were. I had actually forgotten just how much I love that band and it took all of thirty seconds of the video of ‘There’s No Other Way’ to remind me of that amorous instinct. They just look like they’re having so much fun, not to mention sounding bloody marvellous while they’re at it. I’ll confess to having bought a copy of ‘Midlife’, the rather terribly named alternative anthology of their reign as chart-shagging tunesmiths when picking up a few things from Morrisons the other day. It was cheap and it seemed like the done thing. Yes, I have all of these songs already. Yes, even the 7″ remix of ‘Death Of A Party’. Indeed, the packaging is a bit weak, but the songs, oh the songs! A random running order of songs apparently chosen by the band actually serves to highlight just what is so special about Blur. ‘He Thought Of Cars’ sounds imperious removed from the surrounds of ‘The Great Escape’, while ‘Blue Jeans’ suddenly seems like it must have been a huge hit rather than an overlooked album gem. Off to see them shortly and I really, truly can’t wait. If you don’t like Blur you’ll have to humour me. That said, if you don’t like Blur, you’re a nutter and you shouldn’t be hanging out around here.

I’m going to persevere with the twitter account for a bit longer. Quick thoughts on records being listened to at any one time seems like the way to go. That and shameless advertising for the blog.

Anyhoo, that’s me for now. If you didn’t catch ‘Psychoville’ last night, nip over to the iPlayer right now and treat yourself. That link’s also worth clicking on in order to see that in the ‘More Like This’ section, the iPlayer recommends ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’. Splendid. In fact, while I’m on about telly, have a quick zip through last night’s ‘That Mitchell And Webb Look’ for the fantastically well observed sketch about their ‘hit and miss sketch show’.