Brit bands expose true differences in new albums
By JOE REISING
Scene Music Critic
Blur and Oasis. Both rock bands, both British. Both have achieved a certain level of success in the U.S. Yet they remain unmistakably different.
Despite their relatively similar backgrounds, there has never been much love lost between Oasis and Blur. Damien Albarn, lead singer of Blur referred to Oasis as "the Spice Girls on drugs." Noel Gallager of Oasis caused quite a controversy when he said he wished Blur's singer and bassist would catch AIDS and die in a 1995 interview. It all started around August of 1995 when Albarn moved the release of the single "Country House" up a week to directly compete with "Roll with It," a single from Oasis' sophomore release, (What's the Story) Morning Glory."
While "Country House" won the battle by becoming a more successful single in Britain, (What's the Story) Morning Glory won the war, by becoming the second best selling album in British history, going quintuple platinum and achieving mainstream success in America.
However, after the success of Morning Glory, American audiences quickly forgot about Oasis, as its following albums, Be Here Now (1997) and this year's Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, received little airtime. Blur finally broke through into American audiences with 1997's "Song 2," which was, in fact, a completely new direction from its earlier britpop days.
With 1999's 13, Blur took the lo-fi sound one step further, releasing its most melancholy and obscure work to date. However, by that point, fickle American audiences had forgotten about Blur, and the new release went largely unnoticed.
However, fans wishing to catch up on their old favorite Brit bands are in luck. Both bands have recently released career spanning collections of their greatest hits. Oasis put out Familiar to Millions, a two disc live set from sold out shows at Wembley stadium last summer. For Blur, it is a 17 song best-of-collection which also includes a bonus live disc. At last American audiences can decide for themselves who deserves to wear the crown of the British band America liked best for a month.
Following the Gallagher brothers' penchant for arrogance and self-promotion, the back cover of Familiar to Millions challenges the listener to "Witness for yourself Britain's finest rock'n'roll band at the peak of their form." Hype overshoots performance initially as "Go Let It Out" and "Who Feels Love," both from the band's most recent album, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, lay out a pretty steady groove and some fairly catchy choruses, but show why Oasis never made much of an impact after Morning Glory. Both songs run over five minutes and most of that time is spent repeating the same chorus over and over again or just repeating the same riff.
"Acquiesce" and "Step Out" are by far the two standout tracks on the first disc. They rock harder and faster than any other songs on the first disc, have great sing along choruses, and the band keeps them under four minutes — avoiding any unnecessary extended jam sessions. On side two, Oasis starts playing its more familiar songs, including "Wonderwall," "Don't Look Back in Anger" and "Champagne Supernova," which all transfer well into live versions. As with "Acquiesce" and "Step Out" this is Oasis at its best, borrowing some classic rock elements, but adding some pop sensibility and knack for sing along melodies while avoiding any arena rock indulgences.
Overall, the album contains few surprises, but is a still pretty good live rock album.
With nearly 80 minutes of music, Best of Blur provides a great introduction to the band's six major releases. The greatest proportion of songs come from Parklife, Blur's most commercially successful release. Even on the five Parklife selections, however, one can see the band's great musical variety — from the festive march of "Parklife" to the lonely buzzing of "This is a Low." The songs are in no particular order which leads to some major stylistic leaps, especially from the majestic, James Bond-esque opener "Universal" to the melancholy jangle of "Coffee and TV" to "Parklife."
Standouts include the aforementioned "Country House" (which incidentally came very close to being the song selected in an Oasis promotional show last year in which the band promised to cover any song its fans selected). The song is a great example of the social commentary that finds its way into many of Blur's songs. Happy horns and quirky guitars thump for nearly the whole song while a sad chorus sighs underneath until it surfaces singing, "Blow/ blow me out/ I am so sad I don't know why." Without resorting to the lyrics, one would have no idea that in actuality, the song is singing about a wealthy, disillusioned man vainly trying to find the answer to his problems outside the city.
As with any greatest hits album, there are also notable absences — especially in terms of 13. The three songs from 13, while great by themselves, are made all the more powerful when listened to within the album's entirety.
But despite the absence of some great songs, the album does contain Blur's newest single, "Music is My Radar." Starting out with the honk of a harmonica, an almost tribal beat and a distant slide guitar, the song builds and builds in intensity until guitarist Graham Coxon unleashes a furious ultra-distorted blasts. The song is much more groove and percussion oriented than anything Blur has produced before, and points to the way to an exciting future.
Besides the obvious difference between the live concert setting versus studio recorded tracks, these albums show a drastic difference of style and substance between the two bands. Blur's songs are all over the place musically — from the dance floor pop of "Boys and Girls," to the country-gospel of "Tender," to the lo-fi, speaker blowing punk of "Song 2." Blur also mixes up its sound with a variety of instruments. The credits in Parklife read like an orchestra concert, including four different kinds of saxes, an accordion, a string quartet and a flute.
Oasis, on the other hand, sticks with the same basic formula throughout its entire two disc album: lay down a decent rock riff, strum some distorted chords, top it with a pretty catchy melody and fill in any gaps with standard blues based solos. Granted it's harder to sound different from song to song in a live setting, but if you've listened to any classic rock station for more than ten minutes, you've probably heard over half of Oasis' playbook.
The album version of "Champagne Supernova" might not strike one as a good example of classic rock reinterpretation, but one listen to the live version makes clear how reliant Oasis is on sounds of the past. However, the band's ability to write genuinely catchy songs does manage to at least keep the album interesting.
The truth is, it is unlikely that either band will recapture its peak level of success in America ever again. Most of the members of the two bands are family men now, and as the recent breakups of the Smashing Pumpkins and other popular bands have shown, it is hard to stay together for much longer than a decade anymore.
So who's better? Who cares. Blur might not have any all-out rock anthems like Oasis, and Oasis might not have the inventiveness and originality of Blur, but it's really a matter of taste. For now all we can hope is that both bands stay together and keep releasing new music — whether America listens to it or not.
All Scene Stories for Tuesday, December 5, 2000