Around 1991 America was bracing itself for the dark antipop of grunge; Blur was not. "Taking the fun out of everything/Making me run when I don't wanna think/Taking the fun out of everything/I don't wanna think at all," Damon Albarn sang on the band's 1991 demi-hit "There's No Other Way." England, you see, was thigh-deep in cheeky pop bands dedicated to preserving the memory of the Byrds and rocking Manchester like there was no tomorrow -- which there wasn't for groups like the Stone Roses, Mock Turtles, and, uh, Rain. Blur soldiered on, eventually gaining respect on the strength of Albarn's sly, satiric lyrics of social observation, distinctly British and distinctly indebted to Ray Davies. (Not that you'd know it from the band's biggest post-"Way" hits -- "Girls and Boys" and "Song #2" -- the key lyric of which is the now ubiquitous "woo-hoo!") Whatever its lyric skills, though, the band's idea of musical depth was adding reverb and unashamedly embracing pop moves most bands had too much wasted integrity to adopt. In short they produced sonic comfort food for Anglophile fans of 120 Minutes. At least until 1997's Blur, which found the band playing footsie with the dreaded "get serious" phase, choosing obscurantism over grand statement as the path to respectability. Guitarist Graham Coxon claimed that American indie-rock (i.e., Pavement) was the new prime influence. Moments of Blur sounded not entirely dissimilar to, say, Guided By Voices. As American altrock was revealing itself to be even more vacuous than Britpop, Blur was seeking indie cred. The search continues on 13, the band's precociously titled sixth album. Now touting influences such as Neu and Tortoise, Blur has tempted the gods by delving all the way into prog-rock and dub. Dub. I'll say this: The group still knows how to grab listeners with short attention spans; they open the record with "Tender," the only obvious single here. Beginning with a guitar and melody line that sound like outtakes from the Anthology of American Folk Music, the song stretches on for almost eight minutes and includes both a gospel choir and pop hooks. Neat. The following few tracks, however, are a disappointment. Buried in a sonic muck of rackety drum sets and guitars set on stun, "Bugman," "Swamp Song," and "B.L.U.R.E.M.I." sound like grungy garage-rock. In other words, regression. Then 13's second half kicks in. Grab hold of a stationary object: It's a fine piece of art rock. The shift is hinted at on the pleasantly aimless "1992," and with the seventh track, "Battle," Blur transforms itself into the second coming of dub-damaged Kraut rockers Can. Utilizing a woozy, throbbing bass line, a bevy of analog synths, a guitar that just goes "grrrrrr-vrrrrm," and an oddly pulsing buzz saw sound, the song takes a full minute to hit a lyric, and even then Albarn just meanders and verbally parses the song's title. The next five songs successfully mine the same vein, creating the best punk-dub fusion to come out of England since Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box. Albarn, meanwhile, manages to squeeze in compelling vocal elements with a lilting melody on "Mellow Song," a Michael Stipe-worthy mumble on "Trailerpark," and another stab at bluesy Americana on "No Distance Left to Run." And though all this doesn't quite excuse 13's fairly dismal first half, it does leave you wondering what's next.
-- Alec Hanley Bemis
FM (Fantasma reMixes)
CM (Cornelius reMixes)
When Cornelius's last album Fantasma was released in America, Brian Wilson fans might have noticed how the inner sleeve packaging alluded to promo photos of Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson. Visually Cornelius, a huge fan of Wilson's work, seemed to be sending out a distinct thank-you to an idol. Musically he did the same, using odd production techniques to milk the further-out possibilities of pop. But Cornelius has come into his own in a different time, when electronica is feeding from the underground up, influencing nearly all popular music. With his latest two-fer of releases, this connection to DJ culture becomes even more apparent. FM is a collection of remixes from Fantasma, constructed by peers from around the globe, including Money Mark, Blur's Damon Albarn, and the equally Wilson- influenced High Llamas. CM is another remix affair, this time finding Cornelius returning the favor to these bands via remixes of their tunes. Both CDs ride on the capabilities of combining the musical visions of both the artist and the producer, much like what can be found on techno mix tapes. The result is a set of albums that bounce a bit incongruously, sometimes highlighting the best aspects of a song and other times just getting in the way.
When the combination of creative ideas meld (Cornelius's take on the High Llamas "Homespin Rerun," Coldcut's remix of "Typewrite Lesson," and Cornelius's reworking of Coldcut's "Atomic Moog 2000"), the chemistry whirls ecstatically and seamlessly to take the songs to a fresh and sometimes higher level. When the pairings don't quite line up (Buffalo Daughter's guitary remix of "New Music Machine" or Cornelius's harum-scarum interpretation of U.N.K.L.E.'s "Ape Shall Never Kill Ape"), the music can grow obnoxious with ceaselessly dynamic but distracting production tricks. For those that haven't yet delved into the music of these bands, the tunes are inaccurate pictures of each's work. But for fans of any of the included artists, a motley group of creatively adventurous musicians, these albums can be interesting (even if they won't quite make heavy rotation in the CD player). If nothing else, CM and FM characterize the respectful give-and-take attitude of many of these groups. If it's your first time, dig deeper. If you already know the bands, dig in and enjoy.
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-- Mark Watt
One of the hottest items on today's dance music scene is Underworld's latest album. All this hype and eager anticipation stems largely from their hit dance track, "Born Slippy," a song that most people only know as "that Trainspotting song." Beaucoup Fish elevates Underworld beyond one-hit-wonder status and establishes the band as a successful synthesis of dance and pop music. With eerie vocals and guitar-based harmonies, the booming drumbeat of Beaucoup reaches from the dance floor to your living room, giving your ears a lot more than the average dose of techno, trance, and house. Comprised of a DJ, a singer-songwriter, and a guitarist/engineer, Underworld's songs are a unique synthesis of pop, electronic, and industrial music. They do not make the perfectly mixed, beat-matched machine productions that DJs spin at clubs; they make techno music with a human soul. DJ Darren Emerson's hard-hitting, edgy drumbeats are complemented by the tormented lyrics delivered by Karl Hyde's dramatic voice. United by Rick Smith's engineering and musical composition, the three members of Underworld capture the full range of emotions in their music. On "Cups" the strong, steady, yet subtle groove is the perfect accompaniment for haunted, chanted mumbling. Even the lack of coherency in the vocals accentuates the total effect of the song. Like most of the album, "Kittens" is a bass-heavy dance song in which the melody purrs out the notes of a stomping house anthem. Revealing the funky side of the band, "Bruce Lee" is a catchy, playful song with witty, light-hearted lyrics and an up-tempo beat. "Skym" is a morose, gentle ballad whose simplicity and sincerity are utterly moving. The reduction of this song to lyrics and harmony without a drum line transforms Hyde's voice into a ghostly dirge about love. Carving a wide slice out of the psychological spectrum, this album does what few DJ compilations manage, because each song expresses an entirely different facet of the human personality. While today's electronic music pounds out rhythm after rhythm, Beaucoup Fish pounds, growls, sings, murmurs, skips, hops, and jumps all around essential human feelings. Quite an accomplishment indeed.
-- Kino McGregor