Fans who were enthusiastically awaiting the release of this disc because they loved the ultra-catchy "Song 2" from Blur's eponymous 1997 album may be sorely disappointed: At first listen, the quartet seems to have turned into an art-noise band. (That's not the speakers buzzing; it's Graham Coxon's guitar.) But despite a shortage of catchy tunes, shout-along choruses and general Brit-pop feel, 13 remains a logical continuance of its spirited predecessor--even if it does feature Damon Albarn singing along with a gospel choir.
"Tender" starts off the album with the aforementioned Albarn-choir pairing, and while the mix shouldn't work, the result is Blur's most ambitious and accomplished composition to date. And so it goes for the next twelve songs, whose eclectic blend signals the players' growth as clearly as did Radiohead's OK Computer. While countless groups have used distortion (and an infectious guitar hook or two) to compensate for a lack of talent or vision, Blur's latest is far more than the cynical mating of Sonic Youth and the Kinks that its critics claim. Rather, the disc is an ambitious full-length from a band determined not to simply make the same recording over and over again.
Although 13 isn't a concept album in the traditional sense, the intensely personal lyrics that saturate it seem to tell the tale of a disintegrating relationship much like the one involving Albarn and Elastica vocalist/guitarist Justine Frischmann, who recently split up after eight years together. The trials inherent in such a separation are embedded in the waves of warped vacuum-cleaner racket that flavors many of the tunes, and they also turn up in "No Distance Left to Run," a sad and beautiful offering that finds Albarn struggling to accept the inevitable ("It's over/You don't need to tell me/I'm not going to kill myself trying to stay in your life"). But the four also touch upon character sketches of the sort that popped up on 1994's Parklife. "Coffee and TV" is instantly likable (it's the most accessible track on the CD), and if numbers such as the manic, Pixies-like "Bugman" take more work to enjoy, the production by William Orbit, who also worked on Madonna's Ray of Light disc, makes the effort worthwhile. That's not to say that the album isn't dark: "Trailerpark," which sounds as if it had been recorded on a hand-held tape deck while Seventies Muzak played on a nearby eight-track, is filled with typically bitter observations ("I'm a country boy/Don't got no soul/I don't sleep at night/The world's growing old"). But Albarn and company refuse to become mired in misanthropy, tossing out tight melodies whenever things are in danger of becoming too depressing.
No, 13 doesn't feature a new chant to replace the "Woo-hoo!" of Blur. But for anyone more interested in brilliant musical complexity than cookie-cutter reproductions, seek and ye shall find.
Sick of It All
Call to Arms
(Fat Wreck Chords)
Whether it bombs you back to the peace table like a "scorched earth campaign" or packs you off with a migraine to the nearest liquor store, Sick of It All's sludge-lorn latest shouldn't necessarily be mistaken for punk diplomacy. After all, more than enough love and gnashing of teeth went into this full-tilt stampede of bullheaded mosh aesthetics. The brothers Koller (Lou, jawsmith, and Pete, guitarz) and bass-hound Craig "Full Steam" Ahead slather on the angst thick as thieves over Armand Majidi's monster kit-bashing--so steadfast, so bloody, bloody ball-busting. (Armand's my boy next time the Yankees win the pennant and revelers donnybrook collectively with The Man. P.S. The Jets suck.)
About Lou: Keep the j-card handy if you wish to decipher every syllable he bellers that resembles language. The lyrics (and there are lots) trot out occassional moments of true, heartfelt tenderness: "All I ever wanted was some fucking peace!," "I'm not asking you to bleed, but show consideration please," and "I search for love but find oppression" all warm my Mary Sunshine soul. It might not tilt Dr. Laura's scales, but I was gladdened to realize that beneath the onslaught of froth and snarl beats the numb heart of a dove. Blame age and wisdom. Blame having kids of their own. Maybe blame the cold reality of death (three in all) that the liner notes salute. Condolences for that, Sicksters. Death sucks. Death and taxes. And the Jets.
By the way, don't miss the hidden track, "Greezy Wheezy," a lo-fi, grain-whiskey'd afterthought that musters Brando's blue-collar quasi-contender. (Or maybe it's just more shits 'n' giggles.) Ah, Youth! "Life's too short but seems too long," the boys grouse--and in a Sick way, it's true. See you in the pit.
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--John La Briola
If you're lucky enough to find this disc, buy it immediately, because the creative passion these three underground rockers from Athens, Georgia, share for both obscure punk and exotic world-music instrumentation comes together in a thoroughly original way. The album begins with "when they first saw the floating world," an instrumental that features a vibraphone, a Javanese zither, Sumatran gongs, a rock drum kit and "the fun machine," whatever that is. The tune's catchiness makes it worth the price of the CD all by itself, but there are many more highlights on Macha, including "the buddha nature," which throws Beastie Boys-like instrumentation and intoxicating vocal texturing onto the pile. While some of the tracks require a rather high level of art appreciation, they certainly reward repeated listens. And as an added incentive, the release includes a bonus CD containing strange recordings from Indonesian countries such as Sumatra, Java, and Bali. The players are back in the studio as we speak, so keep your eye on them--and expect great things.