In the well-worn realm of "theme" music, there is precious little new to be said about a handful of mossy topics -- love, loss, drugs, and death spring immediately to mind. On its sixth album, 13, Blur disregards this truism and attempts to say something memorable about heartbreak, in the aftermath of lead singer Damon Albarn's much-publicized split with Elastica hood ornament Justine Frischmann.
The result, inevitably, is mixed -- both stylistically and qualitywise. 13 is much less homogeneous than the quartet's previous offerings, which, while musically varied, chose one style (seamless, maudlin pop on 1995's The Great Escape; turbid indie sludge on 1997's eponymous platter) and hammered it home throughout. Here Blur empties its quiver at a whole mess of targets, connecting only occasionally.
Three tracks unequivocally stand out. The opening cut, "Tender," employs a gospel eulogy to wax philosophic on love. The steady drumbeat underscores the chanted chorus, which speaks to Albarn's sense of loss: "Come on, come on, get through it." Albarn's pained falsetto -- pretty enough to bring out the teenage British girl in any listener -- rings eerily over the marching drum until he drops way down into his low register to conclude, after all, that "love's the greatest thing," almost in resignation.
"Coffee & T.V." features guitarist Graham Coxon's deft touch with a melodic hook, while Albarn combines his astute social commentary with a hopeful marriage proposal. The low-fi brilliance of the track makes it one of Blur's best, drawing on the promise of the muddy, Pavement-like harmonies and churning guitar found on standout cuts -- "Death of a Party," "M.O.R." -- from the band's last album.
Finally, in "No Distance Left to Run," Albarn spills his pain in a love ballad stripped to the barest elements. The simple arrangement lets the impact of Albarn's prose ring as he intones "I won't kill myself trying to stay in your life."
The rest of 13, though, is filled with murky ideas removed from the oven long before they hardened into coherence. Songs like "Trimm Trabb," showing just a trace of Esquivel's influence, and "Trailerpark," a vintage Stone Roses imitation, want desperately to be great but come off sounding like Albarn is merely sobbing into the bottom of his pint glass. The overall result sounds overlong and sloppy; Albarn's unintelligible ramblings provide poor companionship to the production, which is unfocused despite the assistance of the now ubiquitous William Orbit, who twiddled the knobs on Madonna's award-winning Ray of Light.
Most of the songs pick up some eventual momentum only to disappoint by going nowhere. Albarn's bruised heart could have been a creative gold mine. Instead, what these four art-school gents serve up is material of considerably less luster.
-- Liesa Goins
Shame on You: The Western Swing Dance Gang
The Last of the Great Singing Cowboys
Paying more than mere lip service to the history upon which it was founded, the Chicago "insurgent country" label Bloodshot has introduced Soundies, an imprint for previously unreleased archival recordings from the classic country era of the '40s and '50s. The first two discs in the series -- Spade Cooley's Shame on You and Rex Allen's The Last of the Great Singing Cowboys -- suggest Soundies could become the most important reissue program since Kaleidoscope unearthed the Tiffany Transcriptions of Bob Wills back in the late '70s.
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Speaking of Wills, Spade Cooley was about the closest contender for that Texas trailblazer's title as the King of Western Swing. A West Coast fiddler who spent the late '30s in Jimmy Wakely's band, Cooley cut a number of hits in the '40s for the OKeh label that -- though far more mannered than the wild, jazzy stuff Wills was doing at the same time with his Texas Playboys -- brought him national fame as both a radio star and, in the '50s, the host of a popular TV show. The radio transcriptions collected on Shame on You, culled from mid-'40s airchecks recorded for Standard Radio Transcription Services, span the gamut of Cooley's repertoire, from swinging, fiddle-driven polkas and swaggering steel-guitar stomps to some fine ballads and novelties featuring the smooth, playful vocals of the great Tex Williams. The versions here of Williams' defiant "Stay Away From My Heart" and the yearning "Forgive Me One More Time" come close to stealing the set from Cooley, though the fiddle whiz's work on "Silver Bell" and "Oklahoma Stomp" masterfully defines the rhythmic essence of Western Swing.
As the title implies, Rex Allen quite literally was the last of the singing cowboys: His 1953 film Down Laredo Way was the last of the genre. A native of Willcox, Arizona, Allen relocated to Chicago in the early '40s and joined the cast of the WLS Barn Dance, the radio show from which the transcriptions on The Last of the Great Singing Cowboys are drawn. Always the most limited subgenre of country music, cowboy songs offered mostly romanticized, idyllic portraits of the West -- the sunny skies, the open plains, the joys of punching cattle, the fond remembrances of home, and the sadness of having to leave the girlfriend behind before the big drive. That's what Allen celebrates throughout this terrific disc, from the wistful "My Dear Old Arizona Home" to the hilarious "A Human Coyote Stole My Girl." Allen's lilting croon is perfectly suited for these sentimental looks at the cowboy life, and his band deftly straddles the fence between light Western Swing ("The Girl I Left Behind Me") and gentle, near-pop balladry ("Mexicali Rose").
It's all hopelessly corny and would probably burn the ears of the hard-core-honky-tonk set, but there's a charm to the best of this stuff that makes it an invaluable part of country music's vast legacy.
-- John Floyd