Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Urban Question

No, it's not a post about Joss Stone (heaven forbid), but rather about two of the year's first major releases, both of which seem to focus thematically on modern London. 'A Weekend In The City' is the second album from the much lauded Bloc Party, and it seems that just as I've finally decided that they may just be worth all the column inches, something of an editorial backlash seems to have been instigated. Sometimes I simply don't understand the logic of the music press. Less than a couple of years ago, fashion dictated that the emphasis on rhythm and sound over melody be portrayed as some kind of vanguard, and BP were the leading lights of that movement. The reviews of 'A Weekend In The City' published so far, lukewarm rather than negative, have now highlighted that Kele Okereke doesn't deal much in melodic themes or hooks. All this despite the fact that 'A Weekend In The City' is considerably more accessible and conventional than its predecessor. Whilst it's true that Okereke's vocal range remains limited to about half an octave, he seems to have crafted more memorable songs for this collection.

In fact, the band seem to be pressing all the necessary buttons for their stadium ambitions here, whilst retaining the quirky, most characteristic elements of their original sound (estuary English, off-kilter drumming, crunchy guitars). This time using Jacknife Lee as producer over the more fashionable Paul Epworth, the rough edges are smoothed over and everything becomes crisper and more precise. Yet, in Bloc Party's hands, the big, rousing tactics work remarkably well. The more sensitive songs here have a genuine emotional impact, rather than the manipulative faux-anthemic 'qualities' of a Snow Patrol or a Coldplay. Towards the end of the record, there are three songs with grand ambitions that linger in the mind most effectively. 'Kreuzberg' is a grandiose potted melodrama, complete with chiming guitars and big drums. 'I Still Remember', with its evocative and haunting adolescent recollections (possibly homosexual?) is an intriguing and striking song, and a clear future single. 'Sunday' is slower and more morose, but also eerie and haunting, demonstrating the band's uncanny ability here to meld bombast and subtlety.

The first part of the album seems to deal more explicitly with the London theme - covering issues such as racial tension and the lack of a real sense of belonging. Okereke gave a completely fascinating and riveting interview to The Guardian last month that finally convinced me of his value as a frontman - he's an intriguing and articulate presence. In light of all this, it seems a shame that the record company appeared to have vetoed the inclusion of a track called 'This Is England', which apparently began with recollections of a tense nightbus journey before examining the recent homophobic murder on such a bus. It sounded provocative and daring, and its absence from the final running order is worth noting. Still, tracks like 'Where Is Home?' and 'Waiting For The 7.18' are both mysterious and compelling, all very much helped by a greater emphasis on clarity in the vocals across the whole album. Whilst Okereke's yelps on 'Silent Alarm' often rendered the lyrics incomprehensible, here they are in the main intelligible and completely central to the record's achievement. A Weekend In The City' is a bold, expansive record, but as it turns out, a Bloc Party album with crossover ambitions is a big and beautiful beast.

Damon Albarn has come in for attacks from all corners at various stages of his career - for being a 'mockney', for penning too many songs with 'oom-pah' rhythms, for misappropriating gospel on 'Tender', or hip hop on 'On Your Own'. Whilst in retrospect it's all too easy to emphasise Blur's inconsistencies, it's clear that Albarn was always an outstanding pop songwriter, and in particular a master of the ballad. He has since dabbled in much more esoteric territory, indulging his every whim, with surprisingly dependable levels of success. His latest project, The Good, The Bad and The Queen, is a supergroup with former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, the outstanding Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, and keyboardist/guitarist Simon Tong. The resulting album is as sonically inventive as one might hope, although Allen is not involved as much as he should be. When his drumming is present, the rhythmic emphasis is entirely unpredictable and exciting, and the music takes on a decidedly unusual edge. There's a peculiarly haunting atmosphere throughout, effectively conjuring the sensation of streetlights, damp nights and desolate highways. Albarn's melodies have become more vulnerable and less extravagant as a result of this, and his singing is mostly delicate and unobtrusive.

Whilst the album purports to be about West London, and many have presented it as the dark flipside of the Parklife coin, there's also the lingering spectres of terror, war and, particularly, Iraq. Unfortunately, as on the otherwise splendid 'Think Tank', these appear as abstract forces and are never particularly well fleshed out. Albarn's lyrics have become elusive and frustrating, although he mercifully doesn't quite resort to the Thom Yorke tactic of moaning about everything and never presenting a solution. There's something more substantial here than that, but there's the sense that Albarn feels confused by the gravitas of the global situation, and he's not quite able to articulate these feelings successfully.

Still, it's merely a niggling criticism when so much of this album sounds so assured and enchanting. The sound of the entire record has been carefully planned and cleverly executed, from the rustic pluckings of the opening acoustic guitar to the noisy, extended coda of the closing title track. It moves audaciously from the plaintive to the strident, and the only musical quibble is the slight over-reliance on Albarn's own piano playing, which is slightly heavy-handed and, consequentially, a bit plinky plonk. Still, the highlights here ('History Song', '80s Life', 'A Soldier's Tale' and 'Green Fields') can take their place among Albarn's most considered and affecting works.

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