A collection of posts from my original weblog...or the inscrutable rantings of a madman...could be both...

Friday, May 24, 2002

I want to start by thanking Bone Daddy, my man Shawn Temple (a.k.a. The Fish Who...) and M.A.D. for their excellent comments thread in my last post--I think 13 individual comments is a new record (no pun intended) for this site (O.K., I added some of them)..Woo Hoo (as Homer or Damon Albarn would say--speaking of Albarn..we all know he's a bit of a callous prig at times, but he was quoted as telling the rest of Blur they should stop carping about his success with Gorillaz because he's already got half of the new Blur record in pre-production and they know which side their bread is buttered on...welll, 'scuse us)
That leads me to tell that I have what I consider to be the best Blur album in mini-LP format now. That would be Parklife, originally released in 1994 and a phenomenal improvement over their previous effort Modern Life Is Rubbish, which was hampered by Albarn's "oh-so-clever" lyrics and a running time that almost dared you to try and listen to it all at once. With "Parklife", they shaved off the extraneous fat and Albarn sharpened his Ray Davies-wannabe wit. He came up with characters who are maybe not quite as memorable as Ray's 60s "Swinging London" cast-offs, but offer a portrait of a conflicted England, 90s style..free from Thatcherite repression and greed, but unsure of what to do next and dealing with a mini-"Swinging London" revival that "Britpop" was supposed to embody..especially groups like Blur..shiny, happy lads of the "new" England. Well, of course, "real" life is much more complicated and Albarn tries his best to convey that...there's Tracy Jacks, the civil service worker who flees his home to frolick nude on a beach, is apprehended by the authorities and returned to his home..which he bulldozes down the next week, with the "man-in-crisis" couplet "I'd love to stay here and be normal/but it's just so over-rated". The album opener, Girls and Boys, with it's 80s-style synth bleeps and blips, parodies the working-class for "following the herd/down to Greece..on holiday" but also revels in "avoiding all work/'cos there's none available..". Albarn knows he's playing both sides of the fence, but is having too much fun to care if anyone calls his bluff. The coup de grace, though, is the title track..with Graham Coxon's strident guitar riff and a nearly over-the-top Cockney guest vocal by Phil Daniels, best known for the lead role of "Jimmy" in the film version of The Who's "Quadrophenia" (yes, Sting was in it too.. a minor role as the "Ace Face"). Daniels says things like "I get up when I want..'cept on Wednesdays when I'm rudely awakened by the dustmen" and "..look at that gutlord marching..you should cut down on yer porklife, mate..get some exercise!" and the group chime in with the chorus of "All the people/so many people/and they all go hand in hand..hand in hand through their..parklife.." I don't claim to know what that means, but the tune is so damn *catchy* that it doesn't matter, you just sing along anyway. There are a couple of quirky instrumentals to provide some variety, too..The Debt Collector, which could be the soundtrack for a chartered accountant walking to work, is all carnival organ and massed clarinets...and bassist Alex James gets his little corner of the record with Far Out, a cross between a 60s psychedelic hommage (a la Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd) and a 50s sci-fi "incidental music" track (no theremin, though..bummer). The second half of the album slows the tempo down a bit and in doing so becomes a bit less interesting..the highlights are a sensual guest vocal by Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab on To The End..more excellent guitar work by Coxon on London Loves and the second-to-last tune, which sets up a "come down" mood (Albarn doesn't want you to be too optimistic about the future), This Is A Low. I hadn't listened to it in a while and was surprised by how much of it still holds up, considering it *is* essentially a snap-shot of mid-1990s Britain, seen through the eyes of a middle-class pop group. Of course, Albarn's bluff *would* be called in '95, thanks to a bored music press' need for a "Beatles v. Stones" cat-fight and chose Manchester working-class heroes/hooligans Oasis as Blur's foils. Liam and Noel Gallagher lapped up the press and record sales and walked away the victors (at least in '95) when Blur followed up "Parklife" with another bloated sorta-concept record The Great Escape..which, to be fair..had some amazing tunes on it..(Best Days is *still* one of my favorite songs by them and easily matches anything on "Parklife")..but was just too long and snarky for it's own good and Oasis' stripped-down (and *extremely* Beatles-like) sound was what the people clamored for, and got with (What's The Story) Morning Glory. There was a complete sea-change in 1997 when Oasis' Be Here Now was revealed as the ego-charged/cocaine mess that it is and Blur sneaked into America with the Pavement-tinged Song 2, from the self-titled album that looked to U.S. indie-rock for inspiration instead of England's green and pleasant lands. They then followed that record up with their most experimental offering to date, 13, in 1999..which, though having some weirdly great moments and a single that borrowed the rhythm of John Lennon's "Give Peace A Chance" (Tender), hasn't topped "Parklife" for being a watermark album, not only for it's strong lyric-writing and group cohesiveness, but capturing the zeitgeist of an entire year in it's grooves.
I also picked a new 2-CD set of Porcupine Tree's Delerium Records output from 1991 to 1997, called Stars Die--they left Delerium in 1997 for K-Scope and released Stupid Dream in 1998. All the ones you'd expect to be on a comp. like this are there--Radioactive Toy and The Nostalgia Factory from the "first" P.T. record On The Sunday Of Life (actually, a compilation of cassette-only tunes released between 1989 and 1991)...Voyage 34, P.T.'s psychdelic-dance opus which uncannily debuted around the same time as The Orb's popularity in the early 90s..a few cuts from Up The Downstair, the 1993 album that is considered to be Porcupine Tree's first proper album. And that's just the first disc...the second features tracks from The Sky Moves Sideways, their foray into progressive territory--which, according to the booklet, they regretted a bit because they became fixed with the "prog" tag and didn't feel that was their only style of playing...and tracks from Signify, the more mainstream rock record, issued in 1996. Both discs contain some rare B-sides, too..like Rainy Taxi, from the Staircase Infinities EP, which is pretty tough to score, even on E-Bay...the track Stars Die was left off of "The Sky.." and released on it's own, but it's a good thing that it's on this comp. so I don't have to track it down..and Signify II, which was left off of the album of the same name, but would turn up in P.T.'s live set. The booklet included with the set is pretty lavish and has well-written essays explaining the history of the band, from amusing, psychedelic bedroom taping project between gigs for No Man's Steven Wilson and Malcolm Stocks..to compiling the tapes and selling them on the hippie/crusty festival circuit..to Wilson continuing Porcupine Tree on his own after Stocks moved away..to P.T. becoming a full-time band concern after bringing in other musicians to fulfill live gig requirements and eventually acting as a unit even in the studio. I would recommend this set if you need to tie up some loose ends in your Porcupine Tree collection--but if you want a primer, try Up The Downstair or even Stupid Dream, as those albums represent both phases of the group well.
O.K., folks..enjoy the holiday..whether you have to work or not..if you have to work..hopefully The Man will pay you a bit o' extra bread for your efforts...the "English psych-folk compedium--Part II" will happen soon, 'cause I got the Dr. Strangely Strange "Heavy Petting" disc in the post yesterday...'till then...Peace Out!!