With their latest release, the band scoffs at success.
After lobbing Song 2 at the world in 1997, blur has opted for an
overhaul that seems to toss commercial considerations to the wind.
The British band fired long-time producer Stephen Street and replaced him
with William Orbit, best known for his work on Madonna's Ray of Light.
Last month came the results: 13, an experimental album filled with moody
textures, white noise and other sonic surprises, including a choir on the
gospel-tinged first single Tender.
Blur has no plans to tour extensively, and tonight's sold-out show at The
Palais Royale is one of only a handful of dates in North America.
"It's the dynamics of the band, it just won't survive . . . the only way
it would work is if we keep making records and keep everything else to an
absolute minimum" said lead singer Damon Albarn, sporting severe bed-head
yesterday at a downtown hotel.
"After 10 years of touring it filled us with dread, really" added drummer
Dave Rowntree. "During time off we discovered what it's like to have a
The band has Song 2 to thank for their freedom.From the group's 1997 self-titled CD, the raucous ditty brought Blur its
biggest chart success in North America and prompted a bidding war before
it was licensed to a Canadian beer company, a computer maker, the NHL and
an episode of the Simpsons. The US military also came calling.The yanks wanted to use the track at a "fair" where the Stealth bomber was
being unveiled.The band said no.
"Just the idea of something (making music) that's basically quite an
innocent process and then it . . . leads you face to face with the devil really," said Albarn.
Success has been instructive, Albarn said.
"As far as America's concerned, it's not impossible to have a hit here,
which is something we kind of felt for years and years," he continued,
dunking a piece of bran muffin into a cup of coffee.
But instead of trying for follow-up chart toppers, Blur pushed into new
sonic territory, something they initiated on their last album following
several guitar-driven discs filled with songs about lad culture and
"I have overcome a debilitating desire for attention and things like that,
really. I think I'm more in contact with the way I was brought up, which
was no real kind of focus on money but on developing and learning your own
form of expression, so in a way I've gone back to my roots," Albarn said.
Besides, he has proved he can write pop songs."Its not hard once you know how" Albarn said.
"But that's a very good reason to try to stretch things . . . I suppose
the kind of logical conclusion would be to use this kind of sonic language
and also incorporate strong pop tunes into the next album, but I doubt
that will happen."
Writing of his break-up with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann, 13
marks the first time Albarn has gotten personal.
The band intends tonight's show to focus almost entirely on 13.
It's like going to an art exhibition. People will be paralyzed of
opinion, just because they're in an environment that they're not entirely
comfortable with," Albarn said. "Maybe 40 per cent will come out feeling
it was a worth-while experience."
The audio portion of tonight's show will be broadcast on the Internet at 9
"Stupid Boys are Good to Relax With," Susan Swan once titled a novel, and
to that she might have added, particularly if they are pretty. Damon
Albarn, lead singer for the British band Blur and the sex symbol for
millions of clean-cut, yet fashionable girls is very, very pretty. With
his British prankster look -- a shock of light brown hair, big blue eyes
and big cheekbones -- he's so pretty that the women in the audience during
his band's Tuesday night set at Toronto's Palais Royale Ballroom cheered
whenever he flashed a toothy grin.
He fails Swan's real criteria, though. He is not stupid. He may very well be insane in the music department, but if that's so, he's gone off a
particularly brilliant deep end. As the band whirled through the tracks
off 13, it's latest and very controversial album, it became clear that
the controversy must exist solely in the minds of fans who like their
expectations met, not challenged.
More than a few of those were around for what was the band's only Canadian
appearance. They had come in their best mod wear and their British soccer
team jerseys, and they seemed pleased only during the encore when the band
finally played Beetlebum, a hit off their self-titled third album,
from a time when they were still known for writing cute, acidic lyrics
about the British class system.
Well, Blur has trashed that reputation the way Aerosmith used to trash
hotel rooms. (Let's ignore that their last song of the evening was Song
2, the song they sold to a beer company, thus ensuring they will spend the
rest of their lives in financial, if morally uncomfortable, bliss)
Instead, guitarist Graham Coxon played open-ended, psychedelic melodies
sung by Albarn with psychotically emotional vocals and precariously held
down by Alex James's rumbling bass notes and Dave Rowntree's beat.
On 1992, as the band threatened to spin out of control in Sonic Youth
style, Albarn screamed out what is supposed to be the story of their almost dissolution in the year of the title. It was the closest version of a primal scream the British have yet produced save for the Sex Pistols.
Albarn saved his real primal screams, however, for what have already come
to be known as the divorce songs. It doesn't really matter if songs like
Battle or Caramel were really provoked by the break-up of his
relationship with Justine Frischmann, Elastica's lead singer and a woman
known to colonize the dreams of more that a few men. They are quite
simply, to use a precise esthetic term, awesome.
Battle, in particular, should come with a guaranteed-to-make-you-crazy
sticker. As Coxon's guitar repeats and unravels the chords, Albarn's voice dips to a growl, then rises to a high falsetto. It sounds like a modern, messy rock opera. Tender was the first song of the evening -- and the first track on 13. It is sweet as candy but complex in the way that each line -- "Tender is the ghost/The ghost I love the most" -- forgets a lost lover even as it remembers her.
Albarn has said he wants to become a faceless composer, known only for his
music. It takes both arrogance and courage to throw out a messy
masterpiece like 13 and back it up with a show devoid of fan faves.
Whether or not the tactic arrests, or ironically, helps Blur's rise to
superstardom is debatable, but Albarn won't qualify for a Susan Swan-type
eligibility list for a long time.
Blur, at the Palais Royale, April 6. Tckets: $25. Attendance: 700 (sold out). Rating: NNN
Woo hoo-finally, a Blur show in Toronto that didn't completely suck. Having watched them drunkenly, sloppily or both through previous gigs at Lee's Palace, the Opera House, Varsity Arena, the Molson Amphitheatre et al., it was an unexpected treat to see the British quartet defiantley upright and actually musicianly at the Palais Royale.
Credit both their demanding new album, 13, which they played exclusively through their set, and the band's own limit on touring for this stunning turnabout.
But singer/guitarist Damon Albarn, guitarist/singer Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree presented their songs with enough headsdown urgency and focus that excess flash (recklessly mounting teetering speaker stacks, pissing on the lawns of the venue's neighbours, etc.) wasn't necessary. Not that they were prepared to pony up.
Judging by their feeble deportment the day before on MuchMusic, being millionaire pop stars is enough of a burden without adding the insult of having to selflessly give it up for the fans.
In fairness to Blur, though, a palpable shortage of fans might have had something to do with their lack of charisma. Designated as mostly a showcase, Tuesday's gig reportedly saw only 500 of the available 700 tickets made available to Joe Public via Ticketmaster and a Tower Records promotional tie-in. The rest were distributed among the media, retailers, label folks and radio.
Even so, the lakefront venue felt oddly roomy-good for the people inside, bad for the tear-stained, ticketless kids moping around out front, who probably would have treated the new stuff with slightly more enthusiasm.
Whatever. By the time the encore arrived, there could be no doubt that Blur had to toss the crowd a bone, and they did, offering Beetlebum, Song 2 and others before stalking offstage.
Instruments handed to roadies, the quartet headed out a rear door and into a large van waiting to transport them back to their hotel. Not one of them paused long enough to look at anything except the arse of the guy climbing into the vehicle in front of him. Superstardom at its most sublime.