Saturday, September 03, 2011

Blur, "Starshaped", "No Distance Left To Run"; Pulp live in Toulouse 25/08/2011

I remember reading a review of "Starshaped" in one of the UK music weeklies in 1993. It accomplished what a review is supposed to accomplish -- it piqued my interest. I'd followed some of the friendly press they'd been getting, read the "Modern Life Is Rubbish" interviews where Damon Albarn claimed that just like punk killed hippies, they and their introspective British pop songs were on a mission to kill grunge (a short four years later they were writing grunge anthems and trying to sound like Beck and Pavement. The music business is hilarious sometimes). I wasn't biting, and wouldn't bite until the too awesome to ignore "Parklife" came out the next year.

And so, in yet another one of those baffling "my life in music" quirks where time flies and the next thing you know, you're wondering how it took eighteen years to get around to seeing "Starshaped". But now having seen it, I can justify the lack of urgency. If memory serves, the reviews appreciated the "warts and all" approach to capturing the band, showing both highs and lows, and not trying to serve as "oh my, look at our adoring fans cheering us, my what big stars we are" propaganda. Maybe that came across as bold and different in the era before every band was obligated to produce a tour film as a series of bonus chapters on their DVD every time they headed out on the road. It's not as if I was expecting sixty minutes of philosophical musing, but I was hoping for something more than scene after scene drinking and bouncing around on festival stages shown in rapid-fire clips interspersed with more drinking. The only scene that revealed anything personal or even halfway interesting about the band was the one where they're all sitting at a table and Damon brings up the subject of their infamously miserable year touring "Leisure" throughout 1992, followed by ... complete silence and indifference from the rest of the band. Yes, they don't want to talk about it. Have they simply moved on? Are they too focused on the future to dwell any more on the past? Are the wounds too fresh? You won't find the answers here.

Two concerts are featured as bonus chapters on the DVD. The first is a four song excerpt from a 1990 show in a tiny club, reportedly recorded just after they'd been signed. Watch it and marvel at the fact that they even got signed at all. They look and sound atrocious, metronomically flopping their hair around in their very best Madchester impression while their musicianship barely meets high school talent show levels of precision. The second show is a near complete gig from London in 1991, and it's like night and day. Their playing is messy in parts, but overall they sound tight and energetic. The gig captures them at a midpoint between the baggy/shoegaze twin ripoffs of their early days and the take no prisoners attitude of the "Modern Life is Rubbish" era, where they progressed as songwriters by leaps and bounds. Their performance of "There's No Other Way" bears little resemblance to more frantic later versions, here, they're still ironing out the last wrinkles of the Charlatans UK with the frivolous organ parts and mid-tempo shuffling. But "Oily Water" and a searing version of "Turn It Up" -- the worst song on MLIR actually rendered enjoyable -- hint at how bright the future would be.


Blur released their second film, "No Distance Left To Run", in 2010 and this is type of career retrospective that every great band wishes it could make. The history of the band, everything from meeting in school through "Think Tank", is told through a series of interviews with the individual band members against the backdrop of their comeback concerts in 2009. It's honest, painful, and hilarious. Nobody pulls any punches, nobody tries to gloss over the bad parts. Time and perspective has put everything in its proper context. The band knows exactly who they are, who they were*, and there are no delusions of grandeur, none of that "we've come back because music isn't what it used to be, the world needs Blur again" pompousness. They don't rant about they'll conquer the world again, but they all seem genuinely thrilled about the success of the reunion and about playing together again -- about the need to play together again to leave things in a better place than they were in 2003. Damon says that they played the best gigs of their career and it's all because of their friendship, and as corny as it sounds, I'll buy it because I can't think of a better reason why these songs should have sounded so good twenty years later.

* Well, in particular I couldn't let this one go from Damon, speaking about "Parklife", he says "there was no such thing as a left field indie band that were that commercial, and I think everyone had accepted that it was never going to be like that." Forgotten about Suede, have we? Come to grips with it Damon, it's been fifteen years! Oasis were nothing in April 1994 when "Parklife" was released, at that time it was viewed as Damon's effort to unseat Suede as the kings of British pop.

Blur haven't really changed at all after all these years. They're more balanced and responsible, but they look the same (but a bit older), Damon is still the arrogant but incredibly talented frontman, Graham is the quiet, troubled guitar genius; Alex is the boisterous cigarette smoking one, and Dave is the quiet one. The film matches your preconceptions about who Blur are, it takes everything you already knew and zooms in on the details, bringing everything into sharper focus. As far as band documentaries/histories go, this is one of the best you'll ever see.

Blur always occupied an odd place in my life, I used to say they were the band I liked as much as you could possibly like a band without ever really loving them. And it's still true. To paraphrase a famous movie line, every time I think I've gotten away from Blur, that I don't care about them anymore, they pull me back in.


As we all know, everybody reunites. Remember when reuniting meant the bands your parents listened to or the bands you used to hear on the radio when you were in grade school. Well, just like your parents' generation, now it's time for YOUR favourite bands to have another go at it. Jane's Addiction reunited. Blur reunited. Pulp reunited.

Blur had their moment in the sun in 2009 with their widely praised Hyde Park and Glastonbury shows, this year it was Pulp's turn to blow away the festival goers. But before they started on the festival circuit, they made their live comeback earlier this year in a small venue in Toulouse, France. After ten years on hiatus, they sound pretty much the same as always. They've always sounded a bit shambolic (Pulp were never exactly a well-oiled machine live) and Jarvis Cocker's voice has worn down some, but the songs are still unstoppable. As you'd expect, they ran through nearly all of "Different Class" in versions that are nearly indistinguishable from how they were played fifteen years ago, and it all helps to clarify why "His 'n' Hers" has always been the better album. Some of the subject matter from "Different Class" seems so dated and quaint -- yes, people really did pontificate on whether the soul of rave culture was more than skin deep or whether it was nothing but a bunch of kids getting high and dancing all night in a field. "His 'n' Hers" is nothing but a bunch of teenage hormones running wild and expressed through song, those memories never grow dated and will forever stay raw and poignant, especially on songs like "Pink Glove" (possibly my favourite Pulp song and sounding as fantastic as ever here).

The best parts of the gig are the songs that band and audience haven't heard/performed a million times (or maybe it's just me, still burned out on "Different Class"-era Pulp). A sensational, caustic eight minute version of "This is Hardcore" leads straight into the mood changing "Sunrise", relieving the tension before "Bar Italia" and "Common People" close the main set. At that point, they'd played everything they "had" to play IMO, and didn't disappoint by digging deeper into the archives for the encore -- "O.U." (first time performed since 1995), "Countdown" (I have this on a 1993 bootleg ... has it been performed since?), "Joyriders", "His 'n' Hers" (!!), "Acrylic Afternoons", and "Misshapes". Not my ideal closing tune, but that's a fascinating six-song encore that shows how they're not content to do this comeback the easy, safe way.

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