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Volume 90, Issue 85
Thursday, March 06, 1997
The changing world of Britpop
The current stagnancy of pop music has led many bands to explore new musical avenues for inspiration. The resulting cross-breed of rock and techno music is a new genre that has proven occasionally rewarding, but still remains somewhat unexplored. Many current albums most notably U2's Pop make the foray into the realm of dance and techno but still come out sounding very ordinary and uninspired.
James' Whiplash is not one of those albums. This latest release after a three-year break sees the band at its most daring and creative. Seamlessly combining elements of jungle, techno and dance with its pure pop sound, James demonstrates that it is not afraid to branch off into new musical directions.
The album begins with "Tomorrow," a soaring anthem that sounds like it could be straight off 1993's breakthrough LP Laid. Brisk, melodic and bursting with energy, "Tomorrow" is a superb pop song. "She's A Star," the first single off the album, is another conventional James song and thus, another exercise in great songwriting.
It is on "Greenpeace," the album's fifth track, that things start to get a bit experimental. The song opens with lead singer Tim Booth singing quietly, while mellow organ and chimes echo in the background. As the track slowly evolves into something darker, Booth's vocals become distorted and drum beats pound. The song builds to a complete standstill until suddenly, out of nowhere, a jungle breakbeat emerges from the silence and the song morphs into a drum'n'bass track.
The rest of the album is equally as unpredictable. From the pseudo-industrial "Go To The Bank" to the manic techno intro to "Play Dead," Whiplash is an incredibly versatile album, and to James' credit, it works. With Whiplash, James has proven that it is one of the few bands around that can successfully meld fragments of different genres into one cohesive album and still maintain its own identity.
In 1994, Blur released Parklife, redefining British pop by combining extremely upbeat tempos with lyrics of the British class systems, simple ordeals in day to day life and bank holidays. Success was enjoyed at an extremely surprising level for this indie rock-type band. The following year, the band released The Great Escape, a much better album with more diversity in both music and lyrics, and a rather universal sound. This album even saw the competition between Blur and Oasis go to a more intense level, one that would be compared to The Beatles' and The Rolling Stones' sales battles of the '60s.
Oasis won. Damon got depressed. He moved to Iceland. Then the band re-defined itself yet again. Blur made Blur.
The next installment to this rather unusual career takes an experimental step almost as large as David Bowie trying jungle or U2 going techno. While people may believe that the same old Blur still exists, it does only on a few select tracks.
The opening single is the "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"-styled "Beetlebum," a song that clarifies the whole change in the band: the music takes different directions, but the band could not completely kill off the pop image as Damon still sings. And while other songs, like "Song 2" and "M.O.R." resemble the Blur we all know and love, such sounds do not dominate the music on the album. And after a few listens, people can begin to appreciate the new Blur.
"Country Sad Ballad Man" is a song that has almost entirely been extracted from Pavement's Wowee Zowee, with Albarn singing at an overly high range and slightly out of tune. "You're So Great" takes a lo-fi edge, sounding almost like something you'd hear on an old record found in your grandparents' house. . . in the attic. . . in a box of your grandfather's parents' things. The song, which is entirely sung and performed by guitarist Graham Coxan, comes out with an almost mesmerizing melody and words that, while barely decipherable, tell a story you will need to hear again and again.
Blur is not the band's greatest moment. It also does not contain a single track that should have been left off the album because it remains a wonderful listen. For fans of the extremely happy and poppy Blur, enjoying this album is a true test. But don't worry, the results are really quite satisfying.
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