Reevaluating BLUR: Part 1 – Leisure

This blog has been operating (on and off) for around two years. While there are a handful of people who enjoy reading it, my wife only tends to take a look when I write a long post that includes our vacation photos. I’ve determined that this is because I almost never write about anything that interests her in the slightest. It seems that it would be good of me to correct this.

During the 1990s, when I was waist-deep in the swamps of grunge, punk and metal music, my wife was spending much of her time enjoying Britpop. Britpop is a music scene that I loathed during its heyday. I couldn’t fathom wanting to listen to anything catchy or upbeat or uplifting, and the dearth of British music featuring distorted power chords struck me as some kind of UK-centred deficiency.

One of my wife’s favourite groups of the era, Blur, were exactly that to me. I have no memory of anything that this group released until “Song 2” came out and I said “finally a British band has learned how to use a guitar properly”. Anything prior to that must have caused me to quickly change the channel to something more interesting.

I can recognize that I’m capable of knee-jerk reactions that are often later proven to be poorly reasoned. I’m only human. It is possible that 90s Britpop contains gems that my life has been missing. I will take a look at Blur’s discography for the sake of my marriage, and will perhaps then move on to rethink my stance on other British bands of this era. Blurst things blurst, though.

She’s So High
I’ll start off by saying that Damon Albarn is wearing an absolutely tremendous t-shirt in this video. Boy, that’s a great shirt.

The first impression that I get from “She’s So High” is that it sounds like these guys just discovered reverb and are very, very in love with it. Good lord, is there ever a mountain of reverb on the vocals and drums. The lyrics become mostly unintelligible and the snare drum rings out like it’s in the middle of an empty coliseum. That said, it kind of works for the tune in an early college-rock sort of way.

The verses of this song are pretty underwhelming, but the chorus holds some hooky satisfaction. The reverse-guitar bridge/solo section actually holds the most interest for me, as the bass & drums lock into a pretty tasty groove. It all sounds very of its time, but I wind up liking this tune well enough.

Bang
“Bang” opens with a pretty solid application of a stereo-panned tremolo/snipping pedal that hearkens back to fellow British guitar guy Johnny Marr’s work in The Smiths. The groove that the band settles into when the song properly begins sounds a little stock and uninspired to me. The drum beat is essentially just the drum beat that a competent high school drummer will kick out as soon as they get behind a drum kit.

This song is a little lackluster, the chorus again faring better than the verses overall. As rote as “Bang” seems, it feels like a good opportunity to single out the fact that Blur is one of those British bands with a singer who sounds unapologetic British. The snotty and vaguely punk-tinged vocal delivery works in the band’s favour and gives them the edge that their sometimes rather flat-sounding weaker material desperately needs.

Slow Down
Although this song was not a single, it bangs harder than the two songs that precede it. The crunchiness of this song is satisfying, although it for the most part continues the lolling, sing-song feel of the album so far. The song kicks into high-gear for a rather inspired bridge section that rocks in an off-kilter sort of way that I deeply appreciate. This is the good 90s, everybody.

Except for the lyrics, which seem to be fairly weak across the board on this album.

Repetition
“Repetition” sees the band toying with a sluggish dub-inspired rhythm that erupts into a fuzzed-out but also draggy chorus. The production and performance allow the track to line up with it’s overall vibe, so it isn’t entirely unsuccessful, but it winds up being kind of a drag to listen to. It’s evidence of the band’s willingness to experiment, even on their debut album.

Bad Day
The melodica-driven musical hook that opens “Bad Day” is pretty delightful. The rhythm section shines throughout the tune, and I’m willing to forgive the gratuitous use of wah-wah effects on the heavily-layered guitar. Vocally, the song feels rather low-energy and is not their greatest showing. Decent enough album track, but not great.

On this song, one can really see the shared musical DNA between Blur and Radiohead’s earliest work. This is perhaps unsurprising given that both acts are full of silly British men.

Sing
“Sing” is built around great repeated piano figure and I kind of love it. A song this long would usually bore me and bum me out, but there’s something about the constant bop of of the piano riff and the great bassline that works well for me. The guitar atmospherics are lovely and the vocals have been wisely pulled back from the forefront to blend with the rest of the band.

Given my relative ignorance in terms of what Blur songs are regarded as “the good ones” by Blur fans, I’m not sure if I’m missing the mark by considering this to be a pretty interesting outlier on this album so far. But I dig it.

There’s No Other Way
It seems as though all of this album’s singles are the album’s worst songs. This one is a very 90s-ass 90s song that sounds like it was thrown together by a bunch of teens fresh from a class that teaches kids to rock weakly. To be fair, they were probably kids when they wrote this, but I don’t enjoy it. It sounds like a mid-90s commercial for fun deodorant.

Check out this fuckin’ 90s-ass video, though! Wow! Nice bowl-cut, Emo!

Fool
The definition of an album track, this song kinda blows. The band rocks pretty hard in the chorus, but the whole affair is largely uninteresting. Some reasonable drum work on the bridge doesn’t save it. Yawn, buds. Yawn!

Come Together
This is not a Beatles cover, thank god. Probably because it’s not an Oasis album. Thank god.

The running theme of this album seems to be that the songs have choruses that are way stronger than their verses. I suppose that this is how music is supposed to work, but I really just works out seeming like every song has shitty verse sections.

The chorus of “Come Together” rocks reasonably hard and although I think that the bass player plays his ass off to try to save the rest of it, the song is otherwise uneven. It seems like this drummer is proficient at roughly one beat, played at slightly different tempos. This song also outstays its welcome by at least 60 seconds.

Still better than a Beatles cover, though.

High Cool
This song has the “squeedly bop” kind of groove that was completely rampant through the 90s and went unnoticed by me at the time. I now see it as kind of a plague. It’s the kind of sound that bands like Phish made their whole careers on. Luckily it only pops up in some spots on the records of bands that are actually worth listening to.

Let me also say: I’m glad that we hear a lot less of guitarists just kind of doing simple pentatonic solo noodles as an additional guitar layer on every goddamned song like they used to so often in the 90s. It’s never good and it’s all over this track.

Birthday
This guitarist loves effects pedals! The sounds are actually pretty neat, and they lead to a terrific chord progression. After Damon complains about his birthday for a while and the song simmers, the band erupts into a pretty satisfying rock ‘n roll outro noise jam. There’s not a lot going on with “Birthday”, but I like it.

Wear Me Down
“Wear Me Down” sounds chunky and heavy in a way that I hadn’t really associated with Britpop in the 1990s (save the aforementioned “Song 2”). The band lays it down nice and thick in the verses, for a change, and switches it up with a more sparsely arranged chorus. Despite the fairly ballsy riff that the song is centred around, it’s on the long side and feels a little monotonous overall. The tune isn’t embarrassing or anything, but it is far from what I would consider an inspired closing number.

The Verdict
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Leisure is definitely more of an early 1990s alt-rock record than my initial expectation of Brit-pop semi-glam excess. It’s quite listenable and has a handful of inspired moments, but – as with many debut LPs – one gets the feeling listening to this that it’s the work of a band not yet fully formed. The tracks that attempt to reach outside of the stock alt-rock toolkit are actually the ones that point to the possibility that this group might have more than just a one-note career ahead of them.

Bizarrely, I came into this review with my Blur-related knowledge being primarily focused on Damon Albarn, his work on Blur’s biggest songs, and his work on the Gorillaz records. On Leisure, Albarn is possibly the least remarkable element. Having heard a sampling of more interesting work from later in their career and beyond, it’s very apparent that Albarn has seen a lot of growth as an artist.

Leisure is a fine early alt-rock record, but fails to stand out against the glut of early alternative rock from the dawn of that era. It does, however, involve some t-shirts that I think are very impressive. The t-shirts remain impressive to this very day!

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Author: markmeeks

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