The point when you realise it is better than you thought

It’s a bit like parts of my college and university years in a box.

I’m still thinking about “The blog post trail”, so I will pick this one up at a later point. Today something else. It is a bit music orientated so some of you may wish to press like and move along. Or perhaps you are interested in what I have to say today…

With many things in life, there comes a point when you realise something has changed without you being aware of it. Perhaps you are too familiar and find it difficult to step back and evaluate with fresh eyes. Maybe the change has been subtle to your eyes, like the way you don’t see your child grow day to day. Whatever the reason, it happens, then one day you get a fresh reference point, and realise things have changed. It is like listening to a music album again that you previously disregarded, and realising that it actually, is very, very, good.

Recently I purchased the box set “21” by the English band Blur. If you are from the UK, you will almost certainly have heard of them. They are held in such high regard these days, that they played a concert as part of the Olympic closing celebrations, in Hyde park, just across the city from where the Olympic closing ceremony was taking place. It was available the next day on itunes (and on special CD editions coming soon). If you live in the US, you may well be familiar with “Song 2” (Whoooo Hoo). If you’re a music fan in the US, you likely know of Gorillaz, that Damon Albarn was the main musical whizz behind the music, and had discovered how good Blur actually were by checking out his back catalogue. You may even be familliar with some of the solo work from guitarist, Graham Coxon.

Myself I was a fan from quite early on, although maybe not right at the very beginning. I knew of a few songs including “Theres no other way” but not taken much notice. Then at some point, as I was getting into Indie music about this time, I got with the single “For Tomorrow”. It really struck a chord and I was with them from that point on. The second album “Modern Life is Rubbish”, contained that track, and listening to it now, the version in the box set is excellent, it might be my favourite Blur album. This album was a reaction to music coming out of the US, e.g. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, et al, and a poor US tour they had experienced. They were in many ways still trying to find their voice as a band, and responded with this, the first in a Trilogy of “British life” albums. The second album of the trilogy, pretty much a perfect pop album “Parklife” propelled them into the British mainstream and was actually a key album in “Indie” music becoming the more mainstream thing it is in the UK today. The feud with the other big Brit band Oasis (more on that later) also provided an interesting focal point. That album is arguably their best.

The next four albums finished up the “British” trilogy with a mish-mash of styles (The Great escape), sounded a bit more american indie rock (Blur), a bit more loose, experimental, a more jamming style (13), ending with an album mostly recorded without founding member and guitarist Graham (Think Tank). All four albums sound completely different to each other.

The box set, doubles up each album (if buying the CD version) to contain a second disk of B-sides, fan singles, one off singles, and pretty much everything else released at the time. It also contains four extra disks of unreleased tracks, demos, and rehearsals. I’m still to get to those four. What it did give me chance to do was to play everything again, including the second disks as I had many of the singles, in order. The progression through seven albums is amazing. There are the odd duff tracks (obviously more amongst the b-sides etc), but generally speaking, no drop in quality, if anything, an increase. What amazed me more was that I had always been a fan, but now I was looking at them again virtually with fresh eyes. Blur had a progression similar to that experienced by the Beatles (and I’m not directly comparing the two), albeit with slightly different types of music and influences, and not the “one of the originals” position in pop / rock history. You can clearly see the music change, and the wealth of ideas. I realised that there catalogue stacks up against many of the best bands. To illustrate, try to choose the best 15 or even best 20 tracks. There is so much choice, it is not an easy job. After I had came to this realisation, I spotted this article on Stereogum, which had the same problem trying to find the best 10. It also was an admission that yes, Blur had not been big in the US, being late to the party in that respect, but their catalogue sure did need revisiting to see what you were missing. And it sure has some highlights.

Back in the mid nineties, as Blur released “Parklife”, new rivals Oasis released their debut “Definitely Maybe”, a critically acclaimed album and at the time the biggest selling British debut of all time. Both albums were very good and something to be proud of at the time with the rise of Britpop. Then with the imminent release of albums “The Great escape” and from Oasis “What’s the story, morning glory”, they went head to head with single releases on the same day. Both relatively poor singles I might add, “Country house” and “Roll with it”. It made the national news. Blur got to number one. However Oasis had “Wonderwall” and “Don’t look back in anger” on this album, and achieved greater sales. As it was put, Oasis lost a battle with the first singles, but won the war. But in retrospect, Oasis followed this up with a cocaine fuelled, poor follow up, then a worse one after that. They did better than those two albums, but never achieved the heights of the first two. Whilst Blur changed their sound album to album, going from strength to strength. Which is not to say Oasis don’t have some brilliant tracks, e,g singles like “Live Forever”, or album tracks e.g. “Cast no shadow”. But in retrospect, who really won that war?

Blur have become, through talent and hard work, one of the UK’s most loved bands, particularly for people of my generation. It is interesting that many music fans in the US are starting to realise what they have missed. Lot’s of great songs, lots of great sounds, and lots of fun. At some point I went from being a fan, to being a fan who realised that Blur long since became a key band in British history, like e.g. The kinks, The Small Faces, The Smiths, Roxy music, or many more.

On an individual album basis, I recently had a similar realisation about David Bowie’s album “Low”, and how good that is. But I wanted to write about Blur.

Lexicon word of the day: Paseo.

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The Grammys.

It’s not about the Grammys, but a small nod to this blog here (by Aly Hughes) which is in similar spirit to what I’m trying to do with writing lately, and has had to put up with a couple of my comments this past weekend.

I am not American, I am English, and I live in California. I’m not a big fan of the Grammys anymore than I am of the Brit awards, the English equivalent. For me they are an excuse for big mainstream acts, i.e. those which have sold a lot, to back slap each other and tell each other how great they are. It excludes plenty of bands who may do well critically, but for a variety of reasons, have not hit the interest of the public at large, and thus not had the sales. They are mostly flirting with acts I’m not overly thrilled at, with a token indie act pulled in as though to show they’re making an effort. This year see Bon Iver. For a comparison, here is a list of albums I really liked from last year (currently in order but the order may change over time) :

  • 10 Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
  • 09 Tom Waits – Bad As Me
  • 08 Washed Out – Within and Without
  • 07 White Denim – D
  • 06 St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
  • 05 The Horrors – Skying
  • 04 Elbow – Build a rocket
  • 03 Wilco – The Whole Love
  • 02 Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
  • 01 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

To add to that, you could say these ones where floating around the surface:

  • — Radiohead: The King Of Limbs
  • — Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
  • — Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See
  • — Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
  • — Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots
  • — My Morning Jacket – Circuital
  • — Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
  • — Kurt Vile – Smoke Rings For My Halo
  • — Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
  • — Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
  • — Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
  • — The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

So I say compare this with the Grammys. See what I mean? Now I’ve nothing against Adele, she is very good, but not really for me, so well done to her. The Foo fighters I like but I’ve not listened to that one much so it is not on my list above (yet). The rest, I cannot even remember even though I watched the tv coverage! However that said, the live performances are often decent. The highlights for me:

  • Bruce Springsteen opening.
  • The Beach boys reunion. Brian Wilson kind of looks like an old man let out for the day who is not entirely sure where he is, or what he is doing, but thinks he ought to soldier on anyway. – Still it was great to see.
  • Adele’s live performance. Good return from surgery, knocked that one out.
  • Paul Mccartney’s finale with the “guitar off”. It put me in mind of the “Base off” that Spinal tap did at (I think) Live 8. It was clear that Dave Grohl & Bruce Springsteen were really enjoying themselves, although I think the latter broke a guitar string. That shines through and was fun to watch. I liked the bit where Paul sang at the end but Dave was still in shot over his shoulder and singing along as though it was him on the mike. This for me is a little of what music is about.

I suppose I should mention Whitney Houston. Not a fave of mine it has to be said, although she was an incredible vocalist. I could have done without the prayer at the beginning but no big deal. I suppose they treated the scenario in a dignified way without going too much over the top. However if this had happened a few months back, I cannot help think that she would have been little more than included in the “those lost” section with Amy Winehouse et al, and a song tribute would not have been necessary. It is only as it was the big news item the night before (and likely for the next few days) that it was felt as needed to be dealt with here

So no PJ Harvey even mentioned at the Grammys or no Wilco either. I’m not sure what the cut-off is for inclusion (and quite frankly have no wish to look it up right now). I saw Wilco live a few weeks ago, they are fantastic right now, playing like a band who know each other and are comfortable together.

I was going to write about the album “Copper blue” by Sugar, twenty years old this summer today. I will do that another day. A great album, and Bob Mould is a music legend. He demonstrates my point about the Grammys too, in that in music circles he is a legend for what he has done / written, but as never a big seller, is not part of that club. It is almost like he might not have existed, where to us who are fans, he means a lot more than many of the forgettable acts who have appeared on the Grammys over the years (This year Chris Brown, however much you try, I’m talking about you).

N.B. 2 PM update. I remembered earlier something I forgot to mention about token indie act Bon Iver. He won best new act – for his second album under this monicker. His first album was a critical hit although not a big seller. Why is that best new act? Are they referring to breakthrough, as in sales?

Lexicon word of the day: Mountebank.