Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Album review: Graham Coxon - A+E

The Brits 2012. Globally-adored, multi-million-unit-shifting pop songstress Adele has just had her Best British Artist acceptance speech cut short by multi-million-shit-joke-shifting celebrity brown-noser James Corden. Adele flicks Corden two of her finest digits and saunters off to the cradling arms of her record label chums and a champagne-soaked table. In another world, the Twittersphere is already going ape-shit - or as close to it as you can with 140 characters.

What could be more important to the British music industry than the biggest selling female artist on the planet in 2012? And not just any ‘biggest selling female artist on the planet’. One of us. A local girl who’s vocal chords are so pure, so wholesome they don’t need to be digitised to the point of resembling a phlegm-hacking chest infection to sell records. She’s Grammy award winning, for Christ’s sake.

The reason? A blast from the past. A band that will never die, no matter how obsolete songs about park living, country retreats and woo-hooing are today. Blur - fucking Blur - are making a comeback. For the thirteenth time (probably). We’re told by Corden and his media lackies that we must treasure this moment; this epoch-defining opportunity to relive Britpop. A lawyer, cheese-monger, a gorilla and a be-spectacled man-boy stand foppishly on the stage like the last 20 years haven’t happened.

It sounds agonisingly shit.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Blur is no longer each member’s main squeeze. It’s a band that’s wheeled out for special occasions, like your dad and his pals thrashing on their Fenders to 30 reception guests for Aunt Val’s third marriage; a school reunion of middle-aged men kicking out the jams of their glory day in the garage of a detached suburban bungalow. With one exception: their next session is the Olympic Games. Not bad for a garage.

Yet, if you listen to any of Graham Coxon’s press interviews, this backward-looking bullshit doesn’t sound like his bag. The others, perhaps. But Coxon? A limelight-avoiding indie kid who never really grew up; a stripy t-shirt wearing, borderline-depressive; a creator of 2009’s poignant, introverted acoustic slowburner The Spinning Top. It doesn’t add up. Why would he relive a period that left him crippled and dazed? Why go back when he’s doing an admirable job of going forward?

Maybe Blur is just a hellish vice to give up? A band-based equivalent of a decaying crack pipe. Going by Coxon’s eighth solo album, A+E, it certainly seems that way. Instead of proving he’s happy to lay former glories to rest, Coxon uses these ten tracks to send out a message that he’s far from done with Blur. In fact, a number of these thrashing, trashing pop stutterings sound so eerily familiar it’s as if he’s created a concentrated PR campaign to prove that Blur is in fact he. The good guy. Not those egotistical, press-slavering parasites (and Rowntree) who have sullied its name.

This is not always a bad thing. Especially if you have a penchant for the bouncing indie-pop tuned to the lo-fi frequencies Coxon and co flushed out in their latter years. Opener ‘Advice’ clangs to a barbed-wire guitar that fuzzes and scratches into an explosion of drum while Coxon screeches ”someone gonna give you advice until the morning”. Its successor, ‘Bah Singer’ is equally tumultuous; stacked with aggravated, staccato guitar that hurtles across a backdrop of mayhem percussion and wailing sirens.

Short stabby pop songs are evidently a piece of Coxon’s past. Despite being just ten tracks long, A+E doesn’t short change the listener. Every cut passes the four minute mark and some roll further on, seemingly without end. Often, it’s a successful ploy that showcases Coxon’s ear for intricacy: the gnarling, introverted ‘Knife in the Cast’ screwdrives the ear-canals with painstaking precision, while languid cowboy lullaby 'Ooh Yeh Yeh’ shows Coxon at his most mellow. Yet, the unlovable ballast of ‘Running For Your Life’ should have been cut short at birth, never mind five minutes down a track of shambolic, unlistenable punk-pop.

Most intriguingly, an unmistakeable dance-driven undertone drives A+E’s finer moments. Built on a kaleidoscopic loop of bleeping effects, 'What’ll It Take' examines the more cordial side of krautrock while Coxon wails "What’ll it take to make you people dance?” over and over before dissolving into the background like some sort of mangled smoke alarm. The outstanding ‘City Hall’ is a motorik punk banger, and ‘Seven Naked Valleys’ throbbing riffs and gyrating sax bring out a loin-rubbing side to Coxon’s usually tamed mannerisms. It’s enthralling stuff.

Despite the quality of the execution, it’s difficult to shake the sense that A+E has been done before. And although the steer towards more dance-friendly aesthetics reaps significant pay-off, this isn’t an album with the clout to feature high on many playlists come the summer months. Which is a shame, because some of Coxon’s finest solo moments are to be found in the belly of this rewarding, if stunted, record. But today, in 2012, A+E and Graham Coxon will always fall under the shadow of something much, much bigger. Something that will never end. And, like that night at the Brits, it’s not Adele.

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