Best tunes of 1993: #12 Blur “Chemical world”

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Back when I was in university, I still listened to commercial radio relatively often, but for me, the only station worth listening to had become Toronto’s CFNY 102.1 (these days called The Edge). I loved the morning show with Humble & Fred, the weekend live-to-air shows by Chris Sheppard and Martin Streek, Alan Cross’s Ongoing history of new music on Sunday nights, and of course, the all request nooner on weekdays. The nooner was music “as chosen” by the listeners. I was a regular listener and tried often enough to put in requests but I think my songs only made the show once or twice.

The one time I can say for absolute certainty that it happened for me was when I requested they play Blur’s “Chemical world” just a few days before the band was due to play The Phoenix in Toronto in September 1994. Back then, requests couldn’t be made by webform, email, or tweets, they had to be called in by landline telephone. The phone lines opened 30 minutes to an hour before the show was due to start and some intern or other answered the calls, and if we’re being serious here, they were the ones that really decided which songs were going to be played. After dialling, getting the busy signal, hanging up, and hitting the redial button a number of times, I actually got through to a live person! The guy asked what I wanted to hear, hesitated briefly at my response, and then said “yeah, I think we can play that for you.” He recorded me giving the song an intro and let me go so he could take the next call. I sat by the radio for the next hour in my basement apartment while I ate my lunch and got ready to head in to the university for an afternoon class. Just at the end of the hour, I heard my groggy voice croak the intro and my request was played.

“Chemical world” was the second single released off of Blur’s sophomore release, “Modern life is rubbish”. It’s one of the songs the band recorded when they were sent back to the studio by their labels after initial recordings for the release did not yield any singles. It definitely fits the definition of single without straying far from their new aesthetic. After their debut couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be baggy or shoegaze and it (and their performances) couldn’t find foothold with the US markets, they decided to record the antithesis of the grunge music that was taking over in North America. “Modern life” would turn out to be one of the initial albums to fly the Britpop banner and in the process, influenced a host of other like-minded bands.

“Chemical world” was the only track from the sophomore album to crack the US charts and it was one of the few songs I would hear by the band on occasion, even on alternative radio, at the time. It’s still one of my favourites by Blur and came in at number three when I counted my five favourites by the group a few years ago*. Dave Rowntree is pounding away at the drums, violent but tame, Graham Coxon is ripping away at his guitar like he’s been hanging with John Squire, Alex James’s bass line is holding it all together tightly in muscular arms, and Damon Albarn is once again bashing out against modern life and modern Britain and how it cannot be escaped, even if it was wanted.

“It’s been a hell of a do
They’ve been putting the holes in, yes, yes
And now she’s right out of view
They’ve been putting the holes in, yes, yes
Well, I don’t know about you
They’ve been putting the holes in, yes, yes

Until you can see right through”

*In that post, I told a shorter version of the story detailed above.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1993 list, click here.


Best tunes of 2003: #20 South “Loosen your hold”

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This will be a short but sweet post for this happy Friday because South’s “Loosen your hold” is a rare example of a song that I truly loved but never managed to discover much about its creators.

All I really know about South are facts that I’ve gleaned from Wikipedia. That Joel Cadbury, Brett Shaw, and Jamie McDonald formed the group in London back in 1998, each were multi-instrumentalists and that apart from Cadbury’s lead vocals, the group shared the work of creating the other sounds amongst themselves. They’ve released five studio albums in total, the most recent being last year’s “From here on out”, but the only one I’m really familiar with their sophomore record, 2003’s “With the tides”.

I’d heard about the song “Loosen your hold” and heard the group compared to Travis, Coldplay, Doves, and Elbow, all groups that were, at that time, filling the British musical void left by the mighty tumble from grace of 90s Britpop. The song certainly fit the mould for me and persuaded me to check out the rest of the album. Ghostly harmonies hover over a banjo and a harpsichord playing hopscotch, and it’s all glued together with thick and sinewy synths.

“So loosen your hold
Though you might be frightened
Release or be caught
If this be the right thing”

It might not save the world but it’ll likely bring a smile to your face.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2003 list, click here.


Best albums of 2022: #1 Spiritualized “Everything was beautiful”

In 2018, Jason Pierce released his eighth studio album as Spiritualized, “And nothing hurt”. I remember hearing in advance of its release of how great it was, how it was a return to the sound and scope of their masterpiece, 1997’s “Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space”, and how it might very well be his last album. I was so excited I jumped on it right away, downloading the digital version that was granted me with the pre-order of it on vinyl. Of course, I fell in love with it and it ended up landing at number four on my end of year list for that year, but what struck me the most was how different the album sounded when I dropped the needle to the disc on my turntable.

When “Everything was beautiful” was announced, I was first of all relieved that the fear of Pierce packing it in was unwarranted and secondly, I was determined to wait for my pre-ordered physical copy to arrive before giving any of it a listen. And so I held off on release day, even as I heard once again that this album was the man’s best work since that aforementioned masterpiece, and I was duly rewarded to brilliance and beauty when I gave it a spin the very night the record arrived. It was like a perfect synergy between my ears and my earphones, music and emotion and (forgive me here) spirituality.

Billed by Pierce as a companion album to its predecessor, the two titles taken together form a quote from the Kurt Vonnegut novel, “Slaughterhouse five”, apt considering the songs from both albums were all written and demoed around the same time. This second album, however, has had more time to steep and has the experience of many other lifetimes, these felt even more deeply with all that we have collectively been through in the interim. As great as “And nothing hurts” was and as much as was put into it*, “Everything was beautiful” feels just more complete, more a sum of all of Pierce’s ideas and work, like you can hear pieces of all his career on this album. But this is more a revisit than a rehash, retracing his footsteps in a different set of shoes.

At surface, one might surmise that this album was a throwaway, given that it’s only seven tracks in length. However, it uses every millimeter of space on the record, filling out the forty-five minutes and colouring in the skies in a mass of sound, his sound, space rock. If you’ve never heard Spiritualized’s particular brew of psychedelic noise, gospel, and free jazz, “Everything was beautiful” is just as great a starting point as any of his works. And yes, I would say this is definitely the best Spiritualized record in more than two decades.

The best way to listen to “Everything was beautiful” is end-to-end, all the way through on vinyl but I’m willing here to offer up three picks to lead you by the nose to the prize.

“The mainline song“: When I first saw the title of this track, I immediately thought back to Spiritualized’s second record, “Pure phase”, and the instrumental track that picked up on a theme that coursed through that whole album. This one is different though, more about trains than heroin, and though about half of the track’s six minutes is purely instrumental, we do get into some words. “Sweet heart, sweet light. Oh babe, it’s a beautiful night, and I wanted to know if you wanted to go tell the city tonight.” It’s a track inspired by lockdowns and protests about lockdowns and about finally getting things right. Setting things right.

“Let it bleed (For Iggy)”: “Laboured over these words too long / And nothing to behold / Wanted it to be special for you / But it’s just a song.” Pierce’s ode to his hero Iggy Pop certainly starts off mellow and ventures into delicate balladry, but in his hands, a song is never just a song. The choirs sing and horns call and guitars vibrate. It is about putting everything into it and having faith, perhaps blind fatih, that the efforts will be appreciated. This is about Jason Pierce as much as it is Iggy Pop.

“Always together with you”: Echoes of the title track of “Ladies and gentlemen”, the first track of the album opens with a female breathing the title of the album over space echoes but this time the voice is provided by his daughter, Poppy, instead of his ex-lover, Kate Radley. The similarities don’t end there, indeed, this feels like a sequel, a revisit, but the object is the future and not the past. It is just as epic and beautiful and heartrending. It is six and a half minutes of hope and love, strings and choirs and horns and angels. “If you want a silver moon, I would be a silver moon for you. If you want a unicorn, I would be a unicorn for you. If you want a satellite, I would be a satellite for you. If you want a universe, I would be a universe for you.” The universe would be pleased.

*I remember writing about it at the time that it sounded to me like Pierce was putting his all into it.

In case you missed the previous five posts, here is the rest of the list:

10. Blushing “Possessions”
9. Just Mustard “Heart under”
8. Jeanines “Don’t wait for a sign”
7. The Reds, Pinks and Purples “Summer at land’s end”
6. Tallies “Patina”
5. Suede “Autofiction”
4. Wet Leg “Wet Leg”
3. Beach House “Once twice melody”
2. Alvvays “Blue rev”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.