Top five tunes: Blur

Who? Blur

Years active: 1989-2003 and 2008-present

Band members:
Damon Albarn (vocals, keyboards)
Graham Coxon (guitars, vocals)
Alex James (bass)
Dave Rowntree (drums)

Discography:
Leisure (1991)
Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993)
Parklife (1994)
The Great Escape (1995)
Blur (1997)
13 (1999)
Think Tank (2003)
The Magic Whip (2015)

Context:
Today marks 25 years to the date exactly that I got to see one of my favourite bands (back then and to this day) live. Yes, on September 28th, 1994, I saw Blur perform at a relatively small club called The Phoenix in Toronto (with Pulp supporting them) for their Parklife tour. The following summer they headlined a show at the newly completed Molson Amphitheatre (in the same city), a stacked lineup that included Elastica and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (also Our Lady Mother Earth, or whatever their name is). I remember wondering in the days leading up to that second show how Blur would follow such a high energy act like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, but they truly did blow all the other bands away. Indeed, those who have never seen Blur live or haven’t seen them in so long (like myself) that they may have forgotten how good they are in the flesh would do well to watch the documentary, “No distance left to run”, especially the bonus footage.

Blur had its beginnings in a band called Circus in the late eighties. There was a little bit of roster shuffling in their early days but they quickly settled into their final lineup of Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, and Dave Rowntree, and once they did, they re-branded themselves as Seymour. The name Blur came about a year later, in 1989, because the label (Food) that was signing them really hated Seymour as a band name.

Blur’s debut album, “Leisure” came out in 1991 and was a mish-mash of the shoegaze and madchester sounds, as if they couldn’t quite decide on what kind of band they wanted to be. Frontman Damon Albarn has since gone on record as hating the album, calling it a mess, but it did generate a number of hit singles and some really quality tracks. Their sophomore release, 1993’s “Modern life is rubbish”, was borne out of their frustrations with touring North America and their inability to crack that market. It was an album that both chided and celebrated British culture and became part of the blueprint of the musical movement known as Britpop. Consequently, their third and fourth albums, released in 1994 and 1995 respectively, enjoyed immense success in England by riding the tidal wave of this movement that they helped create.

In 1997, they released their self-titled record and it was a dramatic shift in aesthetic. They embraced an American lo-fi indie rock sound, something they had previously derided, but more than that, they were starting to experiment more, speaking the rock lingo rather than that of pop, an ethos that would continue on through albums six and seven. When Blur toured in support of that fifth album, a single from it called “Song 2” had garnered them a whole new legion of fans so they were playing much bigger venues. (I believe it was Smash Mouth that supported them on the North American leg of that tour.) I passed on that particular show due to the lack of funding that is usual with starving students but was primed when their next tour was announced in support of “13”.

Unfortunately for me, but keeping in line with their new musical aesthetic, the band decided to scale things back and play smaller venues on this tour so they switched off Varsity stadium for the very tiny Palais Royal. On the morning the tickets went on sale, I was on the phone to Ticketmaster playing the dialling game (they didn’t have online ticket sales quite yet) but by the time I got through, five minutes after ten, it was all sold out. In fact, the agent told me that tickets were sold out within moments of going on sale due to all those pesky pre-sales. I later heard mixed reviews of the show. Mixed because the band chose to play their new album in full and those who loved “13”, loved the show but those hoping to hear “Song 2” were greatly disappointed. I definitely would have fallen into the former category, had I managed a ticket.

When they split up in 2003, no one was all that surprised. Guitarist Graham Coxon had already left the band during the recording of “Think tank” and Damon Albarn was appearing increasingly more interested in his extracurricular projects apart from Blur. Indeed, it was a far greater surprise when the band reunited five years later, even welcoming Coxon back into the fold. They have never officially split since then, performing live infrequently, including high profile gigs at the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics and a headline spot at Coachella in 2013.

Things were just starting to quiet down again with the band when out of nowhere they announced the release of their eighth album, their first in twelve years. “The magic whip” was released on April 28th, 2015, and blew us all away, providing us with a collection of songs that teased a band with plenty more to share, rather than one just riding the coattails of past successes. Nowadays, though Albarn is still a very busy boy with his multiple bands (Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad, & The Queen) and of course, his solo career, he no longer wishes to entirely close the book on Blur. And the rest of group, Coxon with his own solo career, Rowntree as Labour party councillor, and James as famed cheese maker, all seem content in their own lives and happy to revisit the band whenever the mood takes them. I for one would love to see Blur live one more time. My hopes were raised on this score when they first reunited back in 2013 but I think the closest they’ve gotten to my neighbourhood since has been that Coachella festival a bunch of years ago.

All that verbiage to say Blur is a super important band to me, which made the task of narrowing their top tunes down to just five damned near impossible. Here are the results of my efforts.

The top five:

#5: There’s no other way (from “Leisure”, 1991)

Blur’s second ever released single is also, to my mind anyway, still one of their best but then, I was always such a fan of the “baggy” sound. This style’s prevalence in 1991 was probably what boosted the song so deeply into the UK singles charts, peaking at the number eight spot. It has that wicked breaking beat and tambourine shuffle that gets the toes off tapping and an organ backbone that sounds like it was ripped out of The Charlatans’ playbook. Derivative? Perhaps. But executed to near perfection so that though they didn’t hail from Manchester, they could’ve easily been mistaken as such. And then there’s that awesome family dining room music video that just has to be watched to be believed.


#4: Under the westway (from “Under the westway EP”, 2012)

Do you remember where you were when you first heard this song? I do. I was sitting in my kitchen on July 2, 2012, streaming the live performance on my laptop. It was so sad and emotional and utterly brilliant, that I immediately wanted to watch it again. It’s another great ballad by the band, smacking heavily of David Bowie and The Beatles, a plodding and soft intro turns bombastic and quite epic by the climax. Shortly after the performance mentioned above, it was co-released with “The puritan”, another excellent but very different sounding tune. It was these that stoked my excitement for a new album, only to be quashed later that year by members of the band, claiming that no new material was forthcoming… But we now know better.


#3: Chemical world (from “Modern life is rubbish”, 1993)

I remember once calling into CFNY, Toronto’s alternative radio station (now named The Edge), to request this very song for the daily lunchtime show: The all-request nooner. Looking back, I’m not sure why I did such a thing, perhaps it was to hear my own voice on the radio, but these days, I don’t even bother with radio so the idea sounds ludicrous. Nonetheless, “Chemical world” was the only song I ever requested that was actually played on the air during that timeslot. Twenty or so years later, it’s still among my very favourite Blur tracks (though Edge 102 likely wouldn’t play it these days) and a really brilliant pop song. Written specifically to appeal to American audiences, it deals with one of Albarn’s favourite universal themes, that of industrialization, rather than the uniquely British identity tropes prevalent on the rest of the album. Oh yeah, and I love that rippin’ guitar lick.


#2: No distance left to run (from “13”, 1999)

And here at number two we have another ballad. There’s just something about Damon’s voice that lends itself to sad or otherwise emotional numbers and nowhere is it more heart-wrenching than on “No distance left to run”. He has said of the lyrics: “It upsets me, that song. It upset me singing it. Doing that vocal upset me greatly. To sing that lyric I really had to accept that that was the end of something in my life.” Although I don’t think he has ever outright admitted this, many people believe the song is about his split with Elastica vocalist, Justine Frischmann. Whether true or no, it makes for a compelling listen, brutal and brilliant at the same time.


#1: This is a low (from “Parklife”, 1994)

“This is a low” was never released as a single but it is a favourite with both the band and their fans, was picked as a track for their “best of” album, and was frequently part of their set list when they performed live, often using it to close their show with a bang (it was their final song both of the times I saw them live). It is a sad and lonely ode to Britain, with Damon and crew longing for home after weeks and months on the road. Coxon’s guitars come crashing like waves against rocks, Rowntree’s drums tapping and sometimes pounding like hail on the pavement, and you can almost picture James with his bass, hair in his eyes, cigarette dangling from his tightening lips. And Damon, he sounds so forlorn and anguished, magnum of cheap red wine in hand, both his collar and the day undone. Cheers to that!


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Top five tunes: Doves

Well, good morning… and, uh… happy new year.

I can hardly believe it myself, this being my first post of 2019.

It wasn’t a planned break or hiatus. I just wasn’t in a huge rush to get right back at it, what with the holidays and life happening in between. I hadn’t planned on taking so long and really, the longer I took to mobilizing myself, the more I realized I’d have to return with something a bit special. And what’s more special than a focus on one of my all-time faves to come out of the 2000s.

Who? Doves

Years active: 1998-2010, 2018-current

Band members:
Jimi Goodwin (lead vocals, bass, guitars)
Jez Williams (guitar, vocals)
Andy Williams (drums, vocals)

Discography:
Lost souls (2000)
The last broadcast (2002)
Some cities (2005)
Kingdom of rust (2009)

Context:
Doves have been front of mind recently for me because the slew of us that consider ourselves fans got an early Christmas present at the beginning of last month when news came down the pipe that the band was reforming. Interestingly, they never really broke up. The official word back in 2010 was hiatus. However, it was a hiatus that seemed interminable and the good but not Doves great solo and side project albums that appeared from its members only exacerbated our collective impatience. Recently, someone started an online petition to get them back together that really gained steam, it had a Twitter account and everything. And now, they’re back… but what that fully means is still a bit unclear. A handful of gigs in their native England have been planned and announced with more promised and rehearsals have started in earnest. At the time of writing this, we still don’t know if there will be tours outside of England, a new album, or vinyl reissues of their now classic back catalogue but one can hope that this reformation isn’t temporary.

Doves originally formed with their current lineup as Sub Sub in 1991. Jimi Goodwin met twin brothers Jez and Andy Williams at high school in Wilmslow, a town just south of Manchester, England. Sub Sub came about after they got reacquainted at the Haçienda and they released a bunch of singles and EPs through the 1990s on Rob Gretton’s record label. A fire at the band’s studio in 1996 meant they lost pretty much all their equipment and recordings and this inspired them to change gears and name. Doves’ atmospheric alt-rock was an obvious departure from the house and dance of Sub Sub when it appeared in the form of an EP in 1998. A couple more of these followed before their debut full-length appeared in 2000. Regular readers of this site might recall that a couple of songs from “Lost souls” appeared on my best tunes of 2000 list.

However, that album wasn’t my introduction to the group. It was “The last broadcast” that first caught my ear. I fell in love with that album on one of my many trips down to Toronto in the early days of living in Ottawa, back when our only mode of transport to home and back was by Greyhound bus. That particular ride was the overnighter on the Friday of the August long weekend. I had the album on repeat on my Discman for the entire five plus hours trek and it kept me company as I wavered in and out of sleep, ingraining itself into my subconscious. After that, “Lost souls” became my friend as well and each successive album became an anticipated event.

Doves released only four albums in total, all of them in the 2000s, before their hiatus took hold. Each of these is a favourite of mine and hence, each has its place near the top of my list of best albums for the years in which they were released. And given the appetite for their reformation, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. For me, it was a difficult task to choose only five great tunes from their catalogue, but I did manage to represent each of the band’s four long players. And I want to state now that I reserve the right to revisit this list in the future, should this reformation lead to new material because I am sure they’ve got same amazing new music left in them, just waiting to be unleashed on us. Here’s hoping, right fellow fans?

In the meantime, have a perusal of the songs below and as always, let me know your favourite Doves tunes. I’m always willing talk this band.

The top five:

#5: Walk in fire (from “Some cities”, 2005)

Kicking things off with song number five, it is a tune never released as a single from Doves’ third studio album, “Some cities”. This was the first album released after I had discovered them so it was also the first album that I had heaped expectations upon. This anticipation led to an initial letdown for me, the only time I experienced such a feeling with any of their albums. In fact, “Walk in fire” was an early favourite because it most closely resembled the work on “The last broadcast”. The rest of the album and its “stripped-down” approach has since grown on me but this one still remains the standout. It’s a song that builds over its five and a half minutes, which is something you might hear over and over again for these five tunes. Starting with a creak and a sigh, an arpeggio on the chiming guitars, and Goodwin wistfully singing about someone you could swear is from his past, or your past, the drums ease in after the first verse and the guitar effects hanging and teasing around thus far increase in insistence. By the time the chorus hits us with that line, “you’re not free till you walk in fire”, things have reached a pretty frantic dance pace. But it doesn’t stop there. Save for a brief respite at the bridge, where things ease off to give space for a lovely echo of keys, Doves keep raising the bar right to the end, stoking the flames to a mass conflagration. All you have to do is walk through it.


#4: Kingdom of rust (from “Kingdom of rust”, 2009)

Our next tune here is the title track and first single off Doves’ fourth and final album, “Kingdom of rust”. It is the second track behind album opener, “Jetstream”, both of which I fell in love with from the beginning. In fact, it took a bit of time to get past these two tunes, they just kept repeating, the rest of the album didn’t reveal itself to me for well over a week after I got it. “Kingdom of rust” is also the only tune by Doves my wife Victoria likes, which still blows my mind. (I obviously need to work harder on her.) I’ve tried to figured why this one particular song appeals to her when the others don’t but the reason eludes me. I’ve thought that perhaps it’s not as fast past paced or busy as some of the others. Yet this is incorrect, the pace is definitely high energy though it feels slightly tempered by Andy Williams opting for brushes over sticks on the skins. And even still, when his brother Jez decides to let loose on his guitar halfway through the song, the sticks return to play and they both unleash a fury. I also wondered if it was the liberal use of a string section, which never really hurts, to Victoria’s ear, though this isn’t the only track on which Doves employ the use of such orchestral sounds. I’m not sure I’ll ever figure it out but it’s a rocking track nonetheless.


#3: Pounding (from “The last broadcast”, 2002)

The second single released off Doves’ second album, “The last broadcast”, certainly lives up to its name. “Pounding” is a case of relentless drumming by Andy Williams. It is a heavy thump thump thump on the bass drum, as inescapable as the passage of time. It is energy and exuberance personified. It is Jimi Goodwin singing about the value of living in the moment and not getting hung up on the unimportant things, singing “I can’t stand by and see you destroyed. I can’t be here and watch you burn up.” It is a leap into hyperspace to chase down enemy tie fighters. It is Jez Williams doing his best The Edge impersonation about halfway through the song, wailing away on his guitar like he still hadn’t found what he was looking for. It is a great driving tune. Nay, I don’t how many times I have cranked the volume on this one in my car and each time the speedometer needle has crept up by itself and I’ve had to lighten my gas pedal foot. If you want a burst of energy and a jolt of good mood, here’s your song.


#2: The man who told everything (from “Lost souls”, 2000)

“The man who told everything” is the third single to be released off “Lost souls” and coincidentally, came in at number three on my best tunes of 2000 list. Forgive me if I plagiarize myself from that earlier post it because, well, I’m not feeling up to reinventing the wheel today. “‘The man who told everything’ is big, bold, and beautiful. But don’t mistake my words for inferring that this tune is high energy frenzy. Instead, for all the excitement of the words, the music has a more muted pace. The guitar strumming matches the easy drumming at the outset but at each chorus, another layer of guitars and string effects is added that has an arduous quality, at once daunting and stubborn and unforgiving. I don’t how to else to describe it. It’s brilliant though. I like to listen to this one late at night, lights dimmed, earphones on, volume up, eyes closed, a pint not far from hand, and just let the waves of it all crash over me. So much awesome.”


#1: There goes the fear (from “The last broadcast”, 2002)

Of course, you knew that if the band only had four albums and each was represented, there would have to be an album that was represented twice. And of course, that album would have to have been “The last broadcast”, my introduction to the band, as mentioned above, and my still favourite of their albums. “There goes the fear” was the first single released from the album and was one of those that was deleted on the same day it was released so only a lucky few out there have a physical copy of the single. It can more easily be found as track three on “The last broadcast” and is most definitely ranking up there as one of my favourite ever tunes. Yes. Just listen to it. It is nearly seven minutes of pure danceable bliss. The guitar work that strings its way through its entirety reminds me of those old toys that you cranked and it played a tune that could speed up or slow down depending on the speed of your cranking. The drum beat, though not as insistent as on “Pounding”, is no less energizing, almost frenetic, tribal and hypnotic, driving you to the dance floor like an adrenaline surging drug. This song and its slow build of layers, stepping it all up to a point of manic ecstasy is the template for songs on to come on later albums, like “Walk in fire” (see above). But it is almost pure perfection here. I could just listen to it forever.


For other top five lists in this series, click here.

Top five tunes: The Sisters Of Mercy

Who? The Sisters of Mercy

Years active: 1980 – present

Band members*:
Andrew Eldritch (lead vocals, keyboards, guitars, drum programming) 1980 – present
Doktor Avalanche (drum machine) 1981 – present
Gary Marx (guitars, vocals) 1980 – 1985
Craig Adams (bass) 1981 – 1985
Wayne Hussey (guitars, backing vocals) 1983 – 1985
Patricia Morrison (bass, backing vocals) 1987 – 1989
Chris Catalyst (guitars, backing vocals) 2005 – present
Ben Christo (guitars, bass, backing vocals) 2006 – present

*The above is only a selected list of band members. There have been a number of members throughout the band’s existence, of which Andrew Eldritch is the only constant.

Discography:
First and last and always (1985)
Floodland (1987)
Vision thing (1990)

Context:
So it’s October and Hallowe’en is just around the corner. I didn’t do anything holiday-themed last year and typically don’t observe the holidays too much on these pages but well… I’m due for another Top Five Tunes post. I thought about doing a Top Five favourite Hallowe’en tune post but didn’t have the energy to dig too deeply into my iTunes collection . Then I thought about going Goth and even that felt like I would have to wrack my brain a bit too much. (You’ll have to bear with me, I’ve already started looking at narrow down my favourite albums for the end of the year series and it’s taking a lot out of me.) So I settled on making October Sisters of Mercy month this year.

Interestingly, if frontman and driving force behind the group, Andrew Eldritch, every read these words connect his group with Hallowe’en and anything remotely goth, he’d likely shudder, scream, and want to scratch my eyes out. He’s never been happy with the label, finding it quite offensive that the genre itself exists and even worse that anyone connects his work with it. I’ll never forget the only time I saw them live, back in 1999, and having noted all the black clothing, dyed hair, and heavy eye makeup in the audience, imagined all the collective jaws dropping in the dark when Eldritch took the stage with bleached blonde hair and a Hawaiian shirt. (If you’re wondering, yeah, it was a freaking awesome show.)

It was my friend Tim that got me into the Sisters of Mercy. He could tell you for sure but I feel like before he sold off his vinyl collection in the early 90s, he had a boatload of their 12″ singles. He started me off by including one of their songs on each of the many mixed tapes he made for me in our last couple of years of high school. But I think the night that really sold them for me was a night he was driving us all home from a drama performance night (yeah, I was a thespian back in high school) and “Ribbons” was blasting in the car. Tim hit a speed bump just as Eldritch was screaming “Incoming” and a good portion of the soft drink I was holding was dumped on whoever was sitting in the back seat behind me. The song stuck. And the rest is history.

Eldritch formed the group in 1980 with guitarist and friend, Gary Marx, taking their name from a Leonard Cohen song. He started off as drummer but quickly put that aside to concentrate on vocals, replacing himself with the first in a line of many different drum machines, all nicknamed “Doktor Avalanche”, that would provide the group’s rhythm throughout the years. This drum machine would be the only other constant in the group besides Eldritch to this day. You might have noticed above the strange fact for a group that has been in existence for almost 40 years: they’ve released only three studio albums (I’ll get to the why in a minute). But it’s also interesting to note that each of those albums were recorded by an almost completely different group.

After those three iconic records and a bunch of singles and compilation albums, recorded output from the band stopped. The recording hiatus started out as a protest against their record label but East West (Warner) released them from the contract 1997. Still nothing. The touring continued, however, and apparently so did the writing of new material, as was evidenced by the appearance of unreleased songs performed at these shows over the years. Rumours have abounded of new albums in the almost thirty years since “Vision thing” but the closest I think we have come was recently when Eldritch himself posited that they may have to finally get back to the studio should Trump be elected president. Well… the unthinkable has happened, perhaps we’ll see a new Sisters record soon. Until then, these are my own favourites from the old back catalogue.

The top five:

#5: Alice (from “Alice”, 1982)

“Alice” was The Sisters of Mercy’s third ever single but the first to gain any real traction. With its initial release in 1982, it got play on John Peel’s radio show, which led to its re-release the following year on a four song EP. It is one of the group’s best known songs and still regularly appears on set lists. It was re-recorded in 1993 and released as a B-side to the Sisters’ final ever released recording: the single “Under the gun”. Both version are quite good but I actually prefer the more austere and claustrophobic production of the original to crisp and flashy do-over. The song is about drug addiction, the title and name of the protagonist being a nod to the Alice of the children’s stories, and how little else matters to a junkie but the drugs. It is dark, edgy, and haunting, so post-punk and goth, even tending toward industrial before there was such a thing.


#4: Dominion / Mother Russia (from “Floodland”, 1987)

“Dominion” was the second single released off of “Floodland”, which some of you might remember made an appearance on my Best albums of 1987 series that wrapped up last month. Many different versions and remixes of varying lengths have been released but I prefer the seven minute version on the album that includes the “Mother Russia”. It adds a whole other element to the song, with lines comparing the US and Russia, almost equating the two as one. But even without this final piece, the song is very much reminiscent of the Cold War. With the clattering drum ominous guitars, and choral backing vocals, it evokes austerity and totalitarianism and propagandism and the threat of nuclear war. “Some say prayers – I say mine.” Yup.


#3: More (from “Vision thing”, 1990)

This one has already appeared on these pages when it peeked its goth rock face out at number seven on my best tunes of 1990 list last October (coincidence?). It was released as the first single off the outfit’s final studio LP, “Vision thing”, and features heavy handed piano and synth washes, muscular, machine gun guitars, and the backing vocals of Scottish singer Maggie Reilly. Like the rest of their catalogue, it is dark and sinister in sound but if you actually sat down and read the lyrics without the music, you might question it being penned by Andrew Eldritch. It reads like a straightforward love song, albeit one bordering on obsessive, almost junkie territory. “All I want, all I need, all the time is more of your sweet love. Too much just ain’t enough. I never needed a fix like this before.” A great tune for driving in the middle of the night with tears streaming down you face… or… wait… just a great tune, really.


#2: This corrosion (from “Floodland”, 1987)

Recorded during the same sessions as the song at number three above, “This corrosion” has Jim Steinman written all over it. The song is epic big in length, scope, and sound, as well as a budget epic enough to cover forty members of the New York Choral Society, whom you can hear opening the ten plus minute song. It is perhaps The Sisters of Mercy’s best known song, recently appearing in the Simon Pegg comedy, “The World’s End”, and his character sports a Sisters shirt throughout. Given the post-apocalyptic imagery of the video, I used to think there was deep, anti-war message/meaning to the song but I’ve since learned that the song and its “over the top” lyrics are really just a shot ex-band member and The Mission frontman, Wayne Hussey. “I got nothing to say I ain’t said before. I bled all I can, I won’t bleed no more. I don’t need no one to understand.” Learning this hasn’t changed anything for me, it’s still a great song in my books.


#1: Temple of love (1992) (from “A slight case of overbombing”, 1992)

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For other top five lists in this series, click here.