Recordings

Blur
13
(Virgin Records)

In the end, "Song 2" meant nothing. It was Britpop masquerading as Seattle rock, a hit single that was all release and no tension. How very American of a band that, until 1997's self-titled fifth record, kept everything obscured behind wily working-class-hero lyrics and rock-but-not-rawking music. And now "Song 2" will forever define Blur to an attention-span-deficient American audience that has turned the tune into the soundtrack of sporting events and computer commercials; hit a home run, and be rewarded with a "wooooo-hoooo."

How very brilliant, then, that the new 13 doesn't feature a single song as fleeting and immediate as "Song 2." Sometimes, it seems as though the record will disintegrate into feedback and keyboard buzz--the disc nearly vibrates in its case.

Yet the first thing heard on 13, "Tender," is the sound of a band-on-the-verge trading in yesterday's radio-friendliness for obtuse melodrama and on-yer-sleeve vulnerability. "Love's the greatest thing that we have," Damon Albarn sings in a from-the-heart falsetto, gospel singers c'mon-c'mon-c'mon cooing behind him--and "Tender" is the first single, a right slap in the face to an audience craving more woos and hoos.

It sounds almost like U2 circa Rattle and Hum, U.K. lads sitting on their hands in a Memphis church pew; it's all a bit overblown and yet oddly affecting, less a calculated risk than an absolute dare. And if it's to be believed that 13 is a chronicle of Albarn's now-ended relationship with Elastica's Justine Frischmann--and her long-whispered-about heroin habit--then "Tender" is a rather astonishing introduction above all else: hopeful, helpless.

Oh, there are hints throughout the record, allusions to dead love: "You loved my bed/You took the other instead," Albarn sighs in the riveting "1992," a song that collapses into a moan of wrenching distortion and fading piano somewhere in the distance. Later, on "Trailerpark," he bitches that "I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones," claiming in interviews that it's a reference to Mick Jagger's junkied-out role in the film Performance.

But such details are left for the fanatics who will cull each word in search of gossip-page confessionals. Better to think of the disc in the universal sense, rather than the personal: "Coffee & T.V." proffers a proposal of marriage while Graham Coxon chuga-chuga-chugas on the downstroke, until the whole song just sounds like a rather enormous grin. "B.L.U.R.E.M.I." might well have been the wise choice for a single: It's trashed-out New Wave, all barked verses and unrelenting pogo guitar--a fookin' hit, in 1982. But "No Distance Left to Run," toward the disc's end, is more emblematic of a disc that begs to be listened to, even forgiven. It's either a hopeful farewell or a give-up goodbye--probably both, the saddest song Albarn will ever sing. Thank God.

--Robert Wilonsky

The Make-Up
I Want Some
(K Records)

Exchanging pith for pizzazz, three former members of the clever hard-core-renaissance quintet Nation of Ulysses joined with ex-Frumpies bassist Michelle Mae in 1995 to create the shtick-laden soul of The Make-Up. Considering the rudimentary R&B of the band's early singles, few could expect what seemed like a novelty act to last as long and actually develop solid soul chops.

Since its inception, The Make-Up has been, er, smeared for its sloppy articulation and gospel gimmickry while remaining fiercely loyal to its DIY punk pedigree. Nonetheless, over the course of four albums (three of which were released by indie stalwarts Dischord Records) and several national tours, The Make-Up has learned to blend and accentuate while remaining faithful to its aesthetic.

Although it's not entirely capable of capturing the rapt jab of soul, the Washington, D.C., foursome's intentions are similar to Gang of Four's "funk," which transforms the icon it mocks into a whole new musical form.

I Want Some is a loaded exhibit of the group's musical growth. The 70-minute CD/double-LP compiles 23 tracks from The Make-Up's scattered discography riddled with numerous out-of-print singles. Vocalist/ex-Sassy magazine pinup Ian Svenonius delivers frantic James Brown-esque jostles and Prince-ly falsetto yelps, earning him the moniker The-Artist-Formerly-Known-As-the-Sassiest-Boy-in-America.

The rigid Memphis soul rhythms of Mae and drummer Steve Gamboa sound fluid on recent recordings like "Born on the Floor," while increasingly resourceful guitarist/organist James Canty juices funk-laced melodies.

The post-punk proto-funk of "Pow! to the People" features slowly flanged electric piano syncopations craftily borrowed from Funkadelic's "Free Your Mind, and Your Ass Will Follow."

Svenonius' noncommittal squeals and overzealous communist rantifesto liner notes ("we shall invert the traditional relationship between producer and consumer, and inject spirituality and communism into the depressed pantomime"), along with the band's primitive R&B, abandon the snivelling reactionary gestures of its hard-core origins to opt for a movement of its own.

By adapting the signs and forms within a culture to transform its given rules--as southern gospel alters Christianity into a religious form essentially its own--The Make-Up aims to express the implicit meaning of gospel music: escape. In so doing, the band presents the indie underground as a religion unto itself. When Svenonius coos, "R U A Believer?" he beckons initiates to the congregation.

--Dave Clifford

 
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