Killing Britpop, then kicking the corpse - Life and Style - The Independent

Killing Britpop, then kicking the corpse

Are Blur the new Sex Pistols? Yes, if their punked-up, perversely uncommercial Newcastle gig was anything to go by; ROCK

I wonder why Blur didn't just leave questionnaires on the door of the Newcastle Mayfair on Wednesday. "What was the B-side of our second single?" they could have asked. And: " 'Sing' is featured on the Trainspotting soundtrack. On which Blur album did it appear?" By denying admission to anyone who got the answers wrong, the band could have weeded out all the Johnny-Come-Latelies who didn't buy their records before Parklife. And that, was exactly what their show seemed designed to do.

Favourites from their last two albums made up only a third of the set; and a couple of those songs ("Girls and Boys" and "Stereotypes") were victims of GBH, if not outright murder, with Damon Albarn shouting each syllable in a mad, monotone staccato. The rest of the gig consisted of early material, to prove there was life before Parklife, and tracks from their forthcoming album, Blur (Food), to prove there is life after it.

"There are no brass sections," says the press release that comes with advance copies of the album, "no eccentric English characters, no acerbic social commentaries, and ... no pristine pop production." In short, there is nothing left of what made Blur the unique trendsetters they were. Having read one too many reviews condemning their music, inaccurately, as wannabe Chas'n'Dave, they've opted for wannabe Pavement instead. It's such a sudden U-turn that I'm surprised they're not in hospital with whiplash.

This switch from Britpop to Yank-indie means, effectively, that the music and lyrics have to be deliberately sloppy. "I didn't try to be witty [on the new album]," Albarn boasts on the press release, as if being one of the cleverest lyricists of your gen- eration were something to be ashamed of. So, it's goodbye to: "He takes all manner of pills/ And piles up analyst bills/ In the country." And hello to: "Beetlebum/ What you done?/ She's your gun./ Now what you done?"

The good news is that the melancholic melodies and skewed New Wave riffs remain. Most of the Blur songs still sound like Blur songs - it's just that they sound like Blur songs played by drunkards.

Still, Blur drunk can play a lot more better than most bands sober, and a small club is a fine place to see them prove it. A brass section and a keyboard player were there to help out on the Great Escape/ Parklife songs, but this time around the focus was on the principal players, particularly Graham Coxon, one of the country's best guitarists, who enjoyed hearing his scrapes and crunches and squeals at the front of the mix for a change.

Alex James's speedy, spikey bass-playing is under-rated, too, probably because his air of nonchalance is so total that he wouldn't know "chalance" if it spat in his champagne glass: Albarn and Coxon were several bars into the opening number before James got around to finishing the bread roll he was munching and picked up his bass. A few minutes later, though, and even he was shaking his fringe relatively energetically. What's more, he didn't sit down throughout the whole show - and bearing in mind his customary level of exertion, that's almost as impressive as if he had leapt around like Pete Towns- hend attached to jump leads. Which is precisely what Coxon and a reckless, glassy-eyed Albarn did.

By choosing to go on a club tour, Blur were broadcasting a clear message: "We no longer aspire to filling Knebworth, because a Knebworth-filling band would never be radical enough to change direction, and to play so few crowd-pleasers." It was an exhilaratingly defiant performance, and if some of the fans I spoke to afterwards were disappointed by the show, it was for the same reasons that Blur must have been pleased with it: because it was perversely uncommercial, punky, and a dramatic escape from The Great Escape. They can't be criticised for anything, except for doing what they set out to do.

Their support act was the Sneaker Pimps, whose guitary, sassy trip-hop resembles a collaboration between Moloko and Elastica. However, they're not as captivating live as they are on last year's album, Becoming X (Clean Up), partly because they don't have the distinctive melodies that the two bands above can lay claim to; partly because singer Kelli Dayton doesn't overcome her nervousness, for all her sterling efforts to be slinky; and partly because they are a three-piece studio band, fleshed out to a five- piece for concert purposes, and they don't yet come across as an organic unit.

Super Furry Animals have no such excuse. They're Rehearsal Rockers: the sort of band who believe they're not performing to an audience at all, but are allowing people to witness their informal, private practice, just as long as those people keep quiet and don't touch any of the wires. Dressed in Cast's cast-offs, these charisma-free Welshmen's idea of a show is to have all five members facing in the same direction at once, and they don't even succeed in that, what with the keyboard player's evident fascination with the amplifier behind him.

For once, though, this was a Rehearsal Rock concert that works. What was most exciting about the Furries' gig at the Astoria on Tuesday was that it did seem like a practice, and one that could have tumbled to a shambolic halt at any time. The psychedelic-glam-punk songs, from last year's stratospherically acclaimed Fuzzy Logic (Creation), are precarious structures indeed: towers constructed from incongruous segments and time signatures. They're direct and tuneful, but so parlously balanced that you can never be sure if the band can keep them upright.

The two guitars battle for supremacy. Gruff Rhys's paradoxically ungruff voice stretches to breaking point and beyond. The harsh drum sound is meticulously designed to give the listener a thudding headache. And the keyboard smears the whole haphazard edifice with whatever Space Invader bleeps and whistles it can muster.

Visually, the Super Furry Animals are standing stock-still - Liam-still, you might say. Sonically, they're scurrying and stumbling all over the place like Keystone Cops, and that's just about enough to be going on with. But that doesn't mean that any other bands can get away with Rehearsal Rock. So don't go getting any ideas.

Blur: Nottingham Rock City, 0115 9412544, tonight; Leeds Town and Country Club, 0113 280 0100, Mon; Southend Cliffs Pavilion, 01702 351135, Tues. Returns only for all shows.

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