Monday, October 26, 2009

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 31 - Blur

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Music is a tricky thing. On one hand, it originated from a very specific time and place. On the other hand, we can experience music detached from its original context. An album that was a popular success forty years ago, halfway around the world? Nowadays, its easier than ever to procure that album and give it a listen, but how much are we missing by not doing our listening in that original time and place?

Lots of popular music claims to be part of a larger movement. Rock'n'roll, punk, rap, grunge, even "indie" music - they all make claims that the music is something bigger than mere soundwaves. Some would argue that this extra-musical context is essential to appreciating the movement. It's this "you-just-had-to-be-there" mentality that comes up a lot while defending older music to modern listeners.

But is this valid? This seems like sort of a cop-out, substituting social relevance for aesthetic worth. Should music require the understanding of a certain zeitgeist in order to be appreciated? Part of me would like to say no. I would like to believe that music can be timeless, and function just as effectively decades later. I try to judge music on purely aesthetic grounds, devoid of any political or social statements that music is trying to make.

On the other hand, I know that this sort of disassociation is impossible. These larger movements are important for understanding the music, or at least why that music was originally created. Music is a social phenomenon, and at least part of our capacity for musical appreciation stems from the culture we are a part of. To completely ignore the music's original context is silly and perhaps fruitless.

That doesn't mean we can't find something to appreciate in music that comes from a culture or time period we know nothing about. We can bring our own personal experience to any piece of music we listen to. But if we are to at least attempt to understand why this music was created in the first place, a little homework is perhaps necessary.

So I suppose I don't have a solution to this problem, and I'm not quite sure whether or not music should be listened to "blindly" or in historical context. There are arguments to both sides, and I'm not going to resolve this in my pithy opening statement for this feature. I suppose its best just to keep these sort of questions in mind, especially when listening to an album that became the emblem of a certain subset of young, lower-middle-class, disillusioned British folks in the mid 1990s.


Artist of the Week: Blur

What I Knew Before: I have always loved "Song 2", the song with a chorus that just begs you to sing along. And I had also been exposed to that song about girls who like boys who like girls who do girls...or whatever. Basically, I had the notion that Blur was somewhat of a novelty act.

My listening: I had four albums this week: Parklife (1994), The Great Escape (1995), Blur (1997), and 13 (1999). I listened to Parklife everyday this week; I listened to the rest at least three times. I also listened to Think Tank (2003) once on Saturday, to finish off the week.

What I Liked: As it turns out, "Song 2" is not Blur's only song with an amazingly catchy, singable chorus. Parklife and The Great Escape are full of these kind of choruses, and even Blur's later albums still contain a few. Songs like "Parklife", "Country House" and "Tracy Jacks" might have been utterly forgettable except for the memorable chorus in each of them.

I liked that the band didn't just try and write the same pop song over and over again and call it an album. Blur uses harpsichords, grind organs, gospel choirs, and synthesizers to great effect on some of their songs, but (on their early albums at least) it never sounds overreaching or gimmicky. And despite their early pop aesthetic and their later penchant for experimentation, Blur has at least one song per album that demonstrates that they know how to completely rock out.

I liked this pull between simple pop songs and more experimental stuff as Blur progressed. No matter what sort of mood I was in, there was a Blur album for me at that time of day. Upbeat and energetic? Put on Parklife. Depressed, stressed out and morose? 13. Cynical and disillusioned? The eponymous Blur it is.

What I Didn't Like: At the beginning of the week, I found Blur's more poppy and melodic albums annoying and grating, and I was completely digging their experimental stuff. By the end of the week, I was tired of their use of weird guitar sounds and denser "blurry" dissonances, and I favored their catchier, earlier stuff. I suppose this isn't really a "dislike", more than just exposing how fickle I can be throughout the course of the week. As I said earlier, Blur always had something for me, at least, so they get credit for that.

Their Britishness. Not just the accent, either (though the song "Parklife" from the album of the same name begins with a raucous "Oy!" and is filled with enough British-isms to turn me into an Anglophobe for good). It's simply that a lot of the songs, especially on Parklife and The Great Escape are targeted toward a different audience than me - namely, people who live in Britain. "Tracy Jacks", "Parklife", "London Lives", and "This Is A Low" are all perfectly fine songs, but they have nothing to say to me. I need to emphasize that this is not Blur's fault. But I'm envious of those Britons in the 1990s who got a bunch of catchy songs that they could relate to. Instead, I have a bunch of catchy songs that means nothing to me, referencing places I have never heard of.

Blur can write a damn good chorus, but they can't write an actual verse to save their life. "Parklife" is the extreme, in which all the verses are actually spoken-word. But many of their other songs are pretty close to this. Damon Albarn can write a hook, but not a melody it seems, or at least not any melody to compete with their Britpop rivals Oasis. Luckily, Blur seems to realize that the chorus is the best part of pretty much all their songs. The structure of these songs seems to go like this: Intro-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Bridge Again-Chorus-Chorus-More Chorus-Even More Chorus.

What I Learned: I learned that "Song 2" is actually supposed to be a parody of grunge music. Too bad that this song is better than anything grunge ever gave us. I'll gladly scream along to the "Woo Hoo"s, even if it means Blur is really laughing at me somewhere. It's totally worth it.

On a broader note, I learned about the Britpop phenomenon that arose as a reaction to American grunge, and was pretty much ignored in the United States (for the obvious reasons). I've listened to some Oasis, but Blur seems like the more definitively "British" band to me. (I speak as someone who has never been to Great Britain, so take my opinion with a grain of salt).

I learned that Blur frontman Damon Albarn is also responsible for the Gorillaz. Who knew? Not me.

Fun Fact of the Week: The feud between Blur and Oasis got really nasty and personal, culminating with both bands releasing a new single on August 14, 1995. Apparently all of Britain was captivated by the "Battle of Britpop", and everyone had a side. Oasis supposedly represented north Britain and the working class, whereas Blur was supposed to be more emblematic of south Britain and upper-middle-class university boys posing as working class. Blur technically won the battle, with their single selling more copies, but Oasis won the war when (What's the Story) Morning Glory went on to become the third best selling British album of all time.

Further Exploration Would Entail: Well, there's Blur's earlier albums Leisure (1991) and Modern Life is Rubbish (1993), which I would guess contain some more pop gems. I also need to go back and listen again to Think Tank. As I said earlier, I was burnt out on Blur's experimental side by the end of the week, but once I clear my mind I will probably give it another go.

I listened to Oasis on Week 24, but I would love to revisit the epic rivalry and compare the two on a disc-by-disc basis now. Beyond Oasis, there's other bands of the Britpop movement to consider, such as Pulp and Suede.

Best Song You've Heard: "Song 2"

Best Song You Haven't Heard: "Clover Over Dover"

Next Week's Artist: Run-DMC