[The Mail On Sunday, 2003]
RAINY DAY MUSIC
BLUR, you have to conclude, are tough little beggars. Not individually. You wouldn't back any of them in a pub fight, not even against the landlady. Except perhaps the drummer. Drummers tend to be good at hitting things. But I digress. Which is fair enough, as so do Blur. Their career consists of digressions and excursions. Some of these have been satisfying, others infuriating, and many plain unbearable.
Blur's collective resilience has helped them survive this waywardness, and kept them going as a unit through several unruly episodes, any one of which would have killed off a less tenacious outfit. They started off circa 1989 as runts in the indie-dance litter - never the most robust of whelpings in the first place. They staved off bankruptcy, dragged themselves through degeneracy, surmounted mediocrity. A whisker away from abandonment by their label, they produced the best selling Parklife album, and inadvertently condemned British rock music to three years of jaunty, thigh-slapping parochialism followed by annihilation at the hands of the light entertainment industry.
When the smoke cleared from the ruins, there were Blur again, in rude and plangent health, sounding for all the world as if they had followed lo-fi prodigies Pavement out of Stockton, California, and had never once induced Mother Brown to raise a knee round the old joanna. Their self titled 1997 album was a splendid piece of work, and 1999's 13 made for a gruelling but commendable follow-up.
Then singer Damon Albarn formed Gorillaz, a hugely successful art rap outfit represented by cartoon characters. Blur's witterings were accorded an excruciating appearance on The South Bank Show. Guitarist Graham Coxon, the motivating force behind the band's raucous renaissance, legged it - in a curious reversal of the usual face-saving procedure, he claims to have been turfed out, while the remaining trio assert that, like a wife bound for the West Indies, he went of his own accord.
Even a troupe of performing cockroaches would have called it quits at this point. Not Blur. Along comes their seventh album, Think Tank, and what do you know, it's a bit of a doozy. Erratic, certainly - it wouldn't say “Blur” on the front if it wasn't erratic. In fact, it doesn't. They had to put a sticker on. But once again I digress. Because. . . you get the picture.
Like almost all of Blur's work, Think Tank is highly reminiscent of other artists' output. Quite a variety of it, in this instance, and much of it very well done. Is Battery In Your Leg really not The Flaming Lips? Surely Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls club was secretly recorded by a reunited Jane's Addiction? Did David Bowie not covertly contribute, and not for the first time, a Lodger-style track (Ambulance) to Blur's cause? Doesn't Gene by Gene prove that even death couldn't silence Joe Strummer? No, nein, nyet and non. It's all Blur, and each one's a cracker. Blur remain princes of credible pastiche, rock's own I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. Crazy Beat bears an unsettling resemblance to an anthemic punk pop cover of S Club 7's Don't Stop Moving. And that's a good thing.
Once you factor in Albarn's fascination with hip hop and the sounds of northern Africa, a less distinct but more pervasive presence looms from the shadows - that of another gifted dilettante and intellectual gadfly, alternately inspired and insufferable, obsessed with black music in all its delirious profusion. Think Tank may not match David Byrne's two masterpieces, the Brian Eno collaboration My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and Talking Heads' Remain In Light. But in its dark tone and dense experimentalism, it strongly calls to mind the earlier Fear of Music. Anyone who's heard that record will know this is praise enough.
Along with Uncle Tupelo, The Jayhawks may fairly be considered forefathers of the alt.country movement. They began in the mid-Eighties as a rootsy proposition, then moved on to pitch-perfect country rock with the marvellous Hollywood Town Hall LP. Weathering the departure of founder Mark Olson, his songwriting partner Gary Louris guided the band into brilliantly retro-futuristic Americana. The last two Jayhawks albums, The Sound of Lies and Smile, contained an abundance of dazzling recordings between them, and seemed to channel simultaneously the spirits of The Replacements, Neil Young, The Carpenters and Joe Meek.
Rainy Day Music is more of a slow-burner. By the standards of its inventive immediate predecessors, it's trad, Dad. In common with the Blur album, it doesn't shy from overt imitation: The Byrds on Stumbling Through The Dark; Tom Petty on Tailspin; George Harrison on Don't Let The World Get In Your Way; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on Madman.
As a collection of songs, it's not Louris's best - that's a title worth holding, and it belongs to The Sound of Lies, a record which grows more compelling with every play. There are a few longueurs here. But the underlying sweetness of Louris's melodies, and the plaintive bemusement which infuses them, combine to deliver a handful of beauties nonetheless. You Look So Young, All The Right Reasons (a gentle and upbeat rewrite of Louris's own brooding, macabre epic Think About It), Madman, the exquisite Stumbling Through The Dark - lollipops all round.
The Jayhawks rank among rock & roll's most underappreciated acts. When, eventually, a best-of is compiled, they're going to have make it a double. At least.
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