Review: Blur 21 Box Set – Music Is Their Radar

It was 1991 and I was shopping at a music store in an industrial park on the outskirts of Toronto, CD Warehouse I think it was called, when I came across Leisure, the debut album by British band Blur. I remember reading about them in the NME and Melody Maker, music magazines I was constantly devouring at the time, but I hadn’t listened to any of the band’s music. No one knew of them over here.  Baggy. Shoegazers. A little psychedelic. That’s what I had read about them. Interesting enough, sure. But I loved the album cover: the stock photo of a 60’s-era woman in a bathing cap, attractive with her carefully detailed eyeliner, lipstick and well-plucked eyebrows, staring happily at me, content in her well-lived, leisure-themed life, enticing me to join in on it.

I did. I took a flyer on Leisure and never left the musical world of Blur.

Twenty-one years and seven albums later, I’m still in that musical world and the career-spanning Blur 21 box set, released this past summer from Food/Virgin/Parlophone, reminds me how great that world has been.

Blur 21 is a CD, DVD and vinyl box set that encompasses virtually everything from the bands musical career, save some hardcore fans’ holy grails. In fact, it even gives you some material from before Blur even existed – when they were named Seymour and searching for a recording contract. Sold in various versions (you can purchase single albums if you’d like), one actually has 18 CD’s, 3 DVD’s, a vinyl record and hardcover retrospective of the band. Each version, however, contains postcard images form the various era’s of the band and liner notes from each album. It’s pretty amazing and will keep any lover of music happily occupied for days on end. The set itself was beautifully timed for release with their recent Hyde Park concert as part of the 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony in London, England.

When I first heard Leisure, I thought that Blur was a decent enough band and that there were some good songs on the album. She’s So High and There’s No Other Way were getting some radio play on the alternative dials, at the universities and in the clubs, but I was more in tune with songs like Sing and Wear Me Down. There was a Beatlesesque vibe happening here, a late 60’s musicality, one of pop fuzz and feedback but sort of folky at the same time, and I was into it. You can especially hear that sound on the remastered album in the Blur 21 box set.

It wasn’t until 1993’s release of Modern Life Is Rubbish, and listening to that album’s first single, For Tomorrow, that I fell, unequivocally, in love with Blur. I still remember reading an interview with Damon Albarn, lead singer and lyricist of the band, in one of the Brit music magazines wherein he said, when referring to the simple chorus of that particular song, “everyone knows what ‘la la la la la’ means.” So true, I thought. And if you haven’t heard For Tomorrow before, you need to listen to it now. It’s striking and it’s beautiful and it encapsulated everything that I, and many others, were feeling at the time. I stripped off my plaid, grunge-flavoured shirt and started dressing in jeans and tweed sport jackets. I travelled to England for the first time and, like the song Blue Jeans, I bought a pair of cherry red Doc Martens on London’s Portobello Road. On a Saturday. I stated listening to The Kinks and comparing everything else I was listening to at that time to the bands they derived their music from.

But no one was like Blur.

Oasis, Gene, Radiohead, Suede and all the others were great. But they weren’t Blur.    As many hardcore fans, Modern Life Is Rubbish remains my favourite album by the band. It was here that they found their voice. In all the difficult recording sessions, including abandoned sessions with short-lived producer Andy Partridge of XTC, struggles with the record label who thought the sheer Britishness of the music was career suicide, Blur stayed true to their beliefs – and success followed.

With Blur 21, you’ll get tough-to-find songs from this era like Popscene, a post-punk live favourite, Badgeman Brown and Young and Lovely, a Bowie-flavoured b-side to the Chemical World single – and a song that deserved to be on a proper album.

The retrospective continues through the laddish Parklife, a step up in the band’s Brit-pop musicianship. Here were songs about holidaying in Greece, joggers, bank holidays, and the century’s end – beautiful and relevant songs. Lyrics had become wittier, more biting, more enticing and the music was more hook-laden and assured than ever before. These were songs that you’d sing with your pals, both at concerts and at the local pub. It’s no wonder Parklife was Blur’s most successful album. The extras on Blur 21 during this time period are like looking through a painter’s sketchbook. All the sounds and ideas that would be sculpted into Parklife are here to listen to – and some of them, like Theme From An Imaginary Film, are masterworks themselves.

Albums like 1997’s self titled Blur and 1999’s 13 mark distinct changes in direction for the band, four musicians attempting to broaden the boundaries of their art form. So many of the extras in the Blur 21 box set are the experiments of that boundary pushing. It’s here that you start to pick up guitarist Graham Coxon’s interest in American-flavoured indie sounds and Albarn’s fascination with world beat music that he eventually develops in his second band, the collective known as Gorillaz.  Just listen to the song Music Is My Radar, originally released in 2000, for that evidence. It’s an amazingly energetic Voodoo-lounge styled sound tinged with afro-beat. Tough to find as a single, it’s available to you here and it’s an important lynchpin to the music that comes later. Albarn sings that Tony Allen, famed Nigerian drummer, got him dancin’, after all, and the groove gets us doing the same thing. Interestingly, Albarn would later go on to form The Good The Bad & The Queen with Allen.

The Blur 21 box set is an unqualified success as a thorough retrospective on all the music the band has created during their existence, their ongoing evolution. For twenty-one years, Blur’s albums have given instruction and their songs have given direction to a generation of music lovers with a keen interest in pop culture and the Americanization of he world. They’ve remained relevant in music – not just in England, but globally, because they’ve evolved and taken chances with their sounds and their musicianship. For twenty-one years, I’ve tapped my feet, nodded my head, sung out loud and raised pints with friends, enjoying the music of Blur.

And music? Music, like the band, is my radar, too.

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