Blur - Topic

Parklife Play

Modern Life Is Rubbish established Blur as the heir to the archly British pop of the Kinks, the Small Faces, and the Jam, but its follow-up, Parklife, revealed the depth of that transformation. Relying more heavily on Ray Davies' seriocomic social commentary, as well as new wave, Parklife runs through the entire history of post-British Invasion Britpop in the course of 16 songs, touching on psychedelia, synth pop, disco, punk, and music hall along the way. Damon Albarn intended these songs to form a sketch of British life in the mid-'90s, and it's startling how close he came to his goal; not only did the bouncy, disco-fied "Girls & Boys" and singalong chant "Parklife" become anthems in the U.K., but they inaugurated a new era of Brit-pop and lad culture, where British youth celebrated their country and traditions. The legions of jangly, melodic bands that followed in the wake of Parklife revealed how much more complex Blur's vision was. Not only was their music precisely detailed -- sound effects and brilliant guitar lines pop up all over the record -- but the melodies elegantly interweaved with the chords, as in the graceful, heartbreaking "Badhead." Surprisingly, Albarn, for all of his cold, dispassionate wit, demonstrates compassion that gives these songs three dimensions, as on the pathos-laden "End of a Century," the melancholy Walker Brothers tribute "To the End," and the swirling, epic closer, "This Is a Low." For all of its celebration of tradition, Parklife is a thoroughly modern record in that it bends genres and is self-referential (the mod anthem of the title track is voiced by none other than Phil Daniels, the star of Quadrophenia). And, by tying the past and the present together, Blur articulated the mid-'90s Zeitgeist and produced an epoch-defining record. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Blur Play

The Great Escape, for all of its many virtues, painted Blur into a corner and there was only one way out -- to abandon the Britpop that they had instigated by bringing the weird strands that always floated through their music to the surface. Blur may superficially appear to be a break from tradition, but it is a logical progression, highlighting the band's rich eclecticism and sense of songcraft. Certainly, they are trying for new sonic territory, bringing in shards of white noise, gurgling electronics, raw guitars, and druggy psychedelia, but these are just extensions of previously hidden elements of Blur's music. What makes it exceptional is how hard the band tries to reinvent itself within its own framework, and the level of which it succeeds. "Beetlebum" runs through the White Album in the space of five minutes; "M.O.R." reinterprets Berlin-era Bowie; "You're So Great," despite the corny title, is affecting lo-fi from Graham Coxon; "Country Sad Ballad Man" is bizarrely affecting, strangled lo-fi psychedelia; "Death of a Party" is an affecting resignation; "On Your Own" is an incredible slice of singalong pop spiked with winding, fluid guitar and synth eruptions; while "Look Inside America" cleverly subverts the traditional Blur song, complete with strings. And "Essex Dogs" is a six-minute slab of free verse and rattling guitar noise. Blur might be self-consciously eclectic, but Blur are at their best when they are trying to live up to their own pretensions, because of Damon Albarn's exceptional sense of songcraft and the band's knack for detailed arrangements that flesh out the songs to their fullest. There might be dark overtones to the record, but the band sounds positively joyous, not only in making noise but wreaking havoc with the expectations of its audience and critics. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Modern Life Is Rubbish Play

As a response to the dominance of grunge in the U.K. and their own decreasing profile in their homeland -- and also as a response to Suede's sudden popularity -- Blur reinvented themselves with their second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, abandoning the shoegazing and baggy influences that dominated Leisure for traditional pop. On the surface, Modern Life may appear to be an homage to the Kinks, David Bowie, the Beatles, and Syd Barrett, yet it isn't a restatement, it's a revitalization. Blur use British guitar pop from the Beatles to My Bloody Valentine as a foundation, spinning off tales of contemporary despair. If Damon Albarn weren't such a clever songwriter, both lyrically and melodically, Modern Life could have sunk under its own pretensions, and the latter half does drag slightly. However, the record teems with life, since Blur refuse to treat their classicist songs as museum pieces. Graham Coxon's guitar tears each song open, either with unpredictable melodic lines or layers of translucent, hypnotic effects, and his work creates great tension with Alex James' kinetic bass. And that provides Albarn a vibrant background for his social satires and cutting commentary. But the reason Modern Life Is Rubbish is such a dynamic record and ushered in a new era of British pop is that nearly every song is carefully constructed and boasts a killer melody, from the stately "For Tomorrow" and the punky "Advert" to the vaudeville stomp of "Sunday Sunday" and the neo-psychedelic "Chemical World." Even with its flaws, it's a record of considerable vision and excitement. [Most American versions of Modern Life Is Rubbish substitute the demo version of "Chemical World" for the studio version on the British edition. They also add the superb single "Pop Scene" before the final song, "Resigned."] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

13 Play

Blur's penitence for Brit-pop continues with the aptly named 13, which deals with star-crossed situations like personal and professional breakups with Damon Albarn's longtime girlfriend, Justine Frischmann of Elastica, and the group's longtime producer, Stephen Street. Building on Blur's un-pop experiments, the group's ambitions to expand their musical and emotional horizons result in a half-baked baker's dozen of songs, featuring some of their most creative peaks and self-indulgent valleys. Albarn has been criticized for lacking depth in his songwriting, but his ballads remain some of Blur's best moments. When Albarn and crew risk some honesty, 13 shines: on "Tender," Albarn is battered and frail, urged by a lush gospel choir to "get through it." His confiding continues on "1992," which alludes to the beginning -- and ending -- of his relationship with Frischmann. On "No Distance Left to Run," one of 13's most moving moments, Albarn addresses post-breakup ambivalence, sighing, "I hope you're with someone who makes you feel safe while you sleep." While these songs reflect Albarn's romantic chaos, "Mellow Song," "Caramel," and "Trimm Trabb" express day-to-day desperation. Musically, the saddest songs on 13 are also the clearest, mixing electronic and acoustic elements in sleek but heartfelt harmony. However, "B.L.U.R.E.M.I." is a by-the-numbers rave-up, and the blustery "Swamp Song" and "Bugman" nick Blur's old punky glam pop style but sound misplaced here. "Trailerpark" veers in yet another direction, a too-trendy trip-hop rip-off that emphasizes the band's musical fog, proving that William Orbit's kitchen-sink production doesn't serve the songs' -- or the band's -- best interests. 13's strange, frustrating combination of expert musicianship and self-indulgence reveals the sound of a band trying to find itself. With some closer editing, this could have been the emotionally deep, sonically wide album Blur yearns to make. ~ Heather Phares, Rovi

Leisure Play

Blur is loosely lumped in with Britain's Manchester Sound; a kind of '60s-psychedelia-meets-dance-music scene. Unlike others in the genre, however, Blur parks most of the disco influences at the door in favor of hard-edged pop. Leisure's most accessible moments, like the singles "She's So High" and "There's No Other Way," blend captivating, fluid melodies with hypnotic, psyched-up instrumentation. More experimental moments like "Repetition" and "Bad Day" are reminiscent of early, Syd Barrett-led Pink Floyd; the dreamy atmospheres firmly anchored by sparse, chunky guitar riffs. Blur will appeal to those who don't mind having their fond recollections of the '60s fused to modern, guitar-driven pop. ~ Roch Parisien, Rovi

The Best of Blur Play

It's boring to point out omissions on hits compilations, especially when a collection is as generous as the 18-track The Best of Blur, but let's do it anyway. The Best of Blur largely bypasses the group's key album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, the record that invented Brit-pop, skewing in favor of the self-consciously "experimental" 13, which, for all of its attributes, wasn't a singles album. Plus, the group continues to punish the British record-buying public by not including the brilliant "Pop Scene" (to beat a dead horse, the single that invented Brit-pop), since nobody bought it at the time. So, without "Pop Scene," "Chemical World," or "Sunday Sunday," a crucial chapter of Blur's history is missing from The Best of Blur -- the chapter where they essentially became Blur. It's to their immense credit that the album doesn't feel like it's missing anything, since these singles (plus one album track) are dazzling on their own. Of course, the trick is that the record isn't assembled chronologically. Instead, it flows like a set list, complete with the set closer "This Is a Low" followed by a two-song encore that ends with the new song (the good, not great, "Music Is My Radar"), which not only gives it a momentum of its own, but draws attention to the songs themselves. And "dazzling" isn't hyperbole -- based on these 18 songs, Blur aren't just the best pop band of the '90s, with greater range and depth than their peers; they rank among the best pop bands of all time. The Best of Blur illustrates that, even as it misses some of their best moments -- omissions that prevent it from being the flat-out classic it should be. Even so, it's pretty damn terrific, particularly for the unconverted. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Parklive Play

Blur headlined a Brit-pop blowout at Hyde Park on the final day of the London 2012 Olympic games, a concert that not so coincidentally also capped off a flurry of Blur-related activity. The band celebrated its 21st anniversary in grand fashion, reissuing its catalog as deluxe double-disc sets, boxing these deluxe editions in a mammoth rarities-laden box set called Blur 21, releasing a good reunion single in "Under the Westway"/"The Puritan," and, finally, performing this concert, releasing it digitally the following week as the double-album Parklive (which is due to be expanded into a five-CD box later in the year). Given the amount of time the reunited Blur spent trawling through their back pages, it's not much of a surprise that the set list of Parklive is constructed as a chronicle of their past, one that touches lightly on their beginnings and end -- there's one song apiece from Leisure and Think Tank -- one that accentuates two through-lines in their history: the churning, darkly psychedelic art rock band and the proudly patriotic, albeit wildly sardonic, British pop group. Considering the occasion, Blur serve up plenty of the former, playing roughly half of Parklife -- Phil Daniels himself comes out to bark out the title track -- and have fun digging deep, playing "London Loves," which has rarely ever been played on-stage. This isn't the only rarity here -- they haul out the Modern Life Is Rubbish B-side "Young and Lovely," which Damon Albarn introduces with a preamble dedicating it to the band's children, an acknowledgment of Blur's advancing years, a subject he also alludes to by changing a lyric on "End of a Century" to "as you get closer to 50." Blur are indeed now 20 years on from their '90s peak and it's evident in the music: where they were once frenetic they are now muscular and Albarn's ambition has mellowed into a quiet confidence. The passing of time has only increased Blur's stature as a British treasure and this is a concert that suits their status: it's crowd-pleasing without pandering, the knotty "Caramel" and "Trimm Trabb" fitting neatly next to "Sunday Sunday," the new "Under the Westway" gaining resonance when placed near "Sing" and "For Tomorrow." The latter is just enough to suggest that Blur could continue to build upon their legacy, but if this turns out to be a farewell, it is one that is triumphant. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Anniversary Box Set Play

Released in the summer of 1999, a few months after 13 came out, Anniversary Box Set rounds up the 22 singles Blur released in the '90s, beginning with "She's So High" and ending with "No Distance Left to Run," all presented in a zip-up case. (In the case of individual volumes of multi-part singles, two singles are jammed together as a single single.) This is not for practical listening, as it does require swapping out 22 CDs to listen to it in sequence, but it's a way to collect the lion's share of prime Blur rarities. Best of these is the "Popscene" single, as that genre-defining song appeared on no proper Blur album in the U.K. (it didn't show up on the subsequent The Best of Blur, but it did show up on the U.S. version of Modern Life is Rubbish), but there are also plenty of excellent B-sides that make this worthwhile, such as the covers of "Daisy Bell" and "Let's All Go Down the Strand" from the Sunday Sunday EP, the swirling Euro-disco of "People in Europe," the sprightly "Universal" tie-in "Utranol" and tense "No Monsters in Me," the excellent "Country House" B-side "One Born Every Minute," the weary "Beetlebum" flip "All Your Life," and some superb live Peel sessions. All of this is necessary for hardcore Blur fans, and those who haven't been buying the CD singles all along would do nicely to get them all in this box. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Midlife: A Beginner's Guide to Blur Play

Released in conjunction with their 2009 reunion, the double-disc career retrospective Midlife emphasizes Blur's early psychedelic grind -- halfway between Syd Barrett and shoegazing -- along with their post-Brit-pop indie makeover, giving somewhat short shrift to the band's pop prime, cutting out four of the band's big hits ("There's No Other Way," "Country House," "End of the Century," and "Charmless Man") in favor of album tracks that play into the thesis that Blur were as somber and serious a guitar band as Radiohead. Of course, Blur did rival Radiohead, recording some of the greatest guitar rock of the '90s, but that was only one facet of the band: they were also a bright, artful pop band, cleverly twisting '60s traditions and post-punk styles into the present. Elements of this Blur are evident in "Girls & Boys" and "Parklife," hits so big they couldn't be ignored, and while Midlife could have used a heavier dose of this side of Blur, there's not a bad track here, and the set also brings their glorious, epoch-creating single "Popscene" back into circulation, so Midlife has some considerable value. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
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