By now Blur has got the Britpop thing down solid. After spending much of the decade constructing clunky and chunky albums detailing such spacious Brit-themes as the Happy Manchester scene and Kinks-style high-class snobbery wars, the art-schooled quartet finally found the key to its Britishness two years ago--in the form of blatant Americanism. The band's self-titled 1997 opus, a work that copped both style and substance from lo-fi American kids like Pavement, was a culmination of everything Blur had strived for since its first guitar strum years before.
With the new 13, Blur merely scoops out the center of Blur's brilliance and rubs its relative gloss down to a coarse, fickle, new-for-'99 model. It isn't so much a progression from that feisty bit of alt-progrock as it is an idle extension of its concept. Singer Damon Albarn loosens the leash on his bandmates, rotating their input (especially on the fractured, mostly instrumental studio pieces that follow each of 13's songs); at last Blur sounds like a working band. But with William Orbit--the guy who turned Madonna into an "electronic" artist last year--behind the boards, the wheezing, experimental nature of the album isn't quite sure where Blur the band fits.
So a series of techniques are tested out on them. Tapes spew out endless yards of noisy nothing, guitars crank out earfuls of squawking no-riffs, and droning piles of Albarnisms mingle with it all. Only the glorious opening "Tender," a seven-minute hymn complete with choir and band clap-alongs, sustains Blur's crafty beauty while stretching its boundaries. The rest of 13 is filled with heroic, but unwieldy, musical ventures, like the spare, sorta tribal "Battle" and the ethereal "Optigan 1." It's aurally enjoyable and aesthetically okay (and as in-your-face artsy as Blur has ever been), yet its frayed edges are beginning to become a bit too tidy.
It's clear from the first raw blasts of Frank Black's new record, Pistolero, who the former Pixie makes records for anymore: himself. Pistolero is a gigantic R.O.C.K. mountain of a record that would sound more appropriate in 1979 than 1999--i.e., you've heard all these moves before, today's kids won't dig it, and, yeah, what's your point?
Black knows what he likes and has found a band (the Catholics) that can give his material the sonic oomph it requires. Beyond that, Pistolero doesn't uncover many surprises. Monstrous guitars crunch and moan, Black's vocals venture from hushed to his customary maniacal yowl, and theatrical rock is the overall emotion. (Between Pistolero and the upcoming Cobra Verde record, we might have the makings of a grandiose punk/glam/metal mini-revival.)
Recording an entire record live, as Pistolero was, direct to two tracks does, however, present both blessings and curses. The tightness and spontaneity jump off of each track on the record; the "liveness" can make it sound like you are sitting in the room. Yet the limitations of essentially live recording, with virtually no overdubbing, have the effect of dragging much of Pistolero down under the weight of laborious guitar soloing, jamming, and other lapses of mediocrity one could (perhaps) get away with live. Here, it just has a demo-ish (or unrealized) quality throughout.
Yet Black is enough of a genuine character--and has enough genuine character--to never let an album get truly conventional. "Skeleton Man" and "You're Such a Wire" exude Black's warped-eye view of the planet. The rock, in Black's hands, usually never gets stale, even though the song structures tend to be. From his trademark frenetic rhythm strum to his unorthodox lyrical phrasing, Black has always possessed an inimitable style. What made the Pixies such a lasting influence and unique occurrence was the collision of three equally inimitable styles. The planets don't align like that too often. Over the course of his five records, Black's uniqueness has been fun to listen to, but has never been able to eclipse the immediacy and vibrancy of his previous band.
The Olivia Tremor Control
Black Foliage: Volume One
Concept records at the end of the decade don't get more heady than the Olivia Tremor Control's second album, Black Foliage: Volume One, a sonic cornucopia of found sounds and retro trippiness that recalls some eerie hybrid of Pet Sounds and Their Satanic Majesties Request (with a tip of the hat to the granddaddy of all psychedelic concept albums, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). It's one part melodic pop overload, one part high-art pretension; and for the Athens, Georgia collective, it's a triumphant achievement in regal record making.
Composed of 27 tracks, divided into four parts, and obsessively detailed in the liner notes, Black Foliage has no concrete tale to tell. It's an oxymoronic abstract concept, an experiment in Pop Art that resolutely gathers sounds from across the globe. Sometimes the noise is coupled with heavenly harmonies straight out of the Beach Boys and Beatles songbooks; other times, like on the five variations of the title tune, they're random instrumental belches strung together by studio gadgetry.
But Black Foliage never comes off as muddled, messy, or erratic--as it so easily could have. It's an ambitious undertaking by a band, working from a proposed notion--that an entire album can be constructed from a single guitar line--and making it flourish. While only the most ultraistic listeners will be able to spot the foundation from that initial song (the poppy "Black Foliage [Itself]") in each and every piece here, traces of it certainly are discernible along the way.
Yet, songs don't really matter. That's the overriding concept of Black Foliage. Everything bleeds into place; the work is a whole, where the end of one cut can't be separated from the start of another. A real trip.