Blur's Not-So-Lucky Number

Blur - 13
(Virgin Records)
2 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)

Story by Tony Bonyata

After releasing one of the strongest and most refreshing albums of 1997 Blur has followed it up with their highly anticipated album 13, which unfortunately carries almost as much stigma as does the unfortunate number it was named after.
Blur more than any other band, except for maybe arch rivals Oasis, defined Brit-pop in the early nineties with their albums Parklife and The Great Escape. While the rest of the world was focused on the burgeoning west coast grunge scene Blur was content on producing quirky numbers filled with killer pop hooks, Beatle-esqe melodies and a bird's eye view of the eccentricities of British lifestyles. Although they almost single-handedly created the Brit-pop scene in England, bandmembers Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree grew tired of the moniker and, influenced more by maverick experimentalists Beck, Pavement and Tortoise, they created a minor masterpiece on their last self-titled album.
Blur takes their experimentations even further on 13, which not-so-coincidentally has thirteen songs on it, and at times they work, although not as well as in the past, and at others they fall flat.
Songs such as the fuzzed-out punk of "Bugman" and the bombastic pogo-ing of "B.L.U.R.E.M.I" show that the lads still have that English spunk in them. What is new is the Cro-Magnon stomp of "Swamp Song" were the band lays down a thick, murky rhythm for Albarn's anguished whining voice to get sucked into, and the distant, melancholic warbling of Albarn over swelling, psychedelic ramblings on "Caramel". Even though they've shown their softer side on previous outings, "Mellow Song" finds them fine tuning it with shades of Kurt Cobain's plaintiveness and Syd Barrett's madcap genius on this, well, mellow song. The Blur of yore can rarely be heard on 13, except for fleeting moments on the quirky "Trimm Trabb" and the comforting, quaint pop of "Coffee & TV".
While Blur's search for reinvention through experimentation is highly commendable, it too should have at times been highly avoided. Their first single from the album is the disappointing "Tender" with out of place gospel singers, pretentious orchestration and a lackluster melody that couldn't stick to the top ten if you staple-gunned it there. "Battle" is nothing more than a half-baked casserole filled with soupy vocals and noodling guitars. Then there's the eerie "Optigan 1" which chases it's own tail with it's redundant droning organ and muddy sound. And speaking of muddy that's another problem with the album. Albarn's vocals are so far buried in the mix that at times he gets lost in all the sonic distortion of off-key guitars, simplistic plinks of piano keys and record scratchings. It's a shame too because beneath all the murky mayhem lies a few dusty little gems just waiting too bust out.
Luckily, however, Blur doesn't seem to be superstitious, for if they were they would have lopped off almost half of this album and instead of 13 called it "Lucky 7".

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