Sharps and Flats is a daily music review.

Published April 20, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

here in the States we often have the bad fortune of having to catch up with British rock bands in mid-career, after their fickle home press has gone to work on them for not being new and surprising anymore, and after they've started to pull all sorts of judo moves to deflect the force of its blows. What we get over here, rather than an import act at the peak of its powers, is often a band intent on doing exactly the opposite of what they're supposed to be all about. A band dug-in for defense -- or in retreat.

Pity America for missing Blur at their strongest. 1994's "Park Life" could've been the album to save "alternative" from diverging forever from the post-punk stylography that the term used to denote -- from becoming plainclothes heavy metal rather than an international buffet. But we Yanks were still trudging along with our Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. The sly-boots melodicism of '95's "The Great Escape" could've been the perfect antidote to formula bubblegrunge. But the hot import bands that year were Bush and Silverchair. America, America ...

Even at this difficult stage of their career, with the Brit-crits ready to pounce at the least sign of consistency, Blur are pretty good. Much of the new album has them chucking over their grander "Great Escape" sound and going American-eclectic. There's a lot of purposefully skronky guitar tone that hearkens back to their unlistenable, pre-Britpop juvenilia -- like on the album's first single, "Beetlebum." There's some low-fi studio fiddling scattered about, and a touch of that strummy, groggy sound that the college DJs were all into a while ago, like on "Country Sad Ballad Man." There are touches of electronica and post-rock twirled off so carelessly that they nearly recommend themselves as sarcasm.

And, in fact, after a few trackings, the whole album starts to come off suspiciously like a bald-faced caricature of the Amerindie style: mumbling, stumbling, thrift-store plundering; self-conscious but world-blank. Contrary and inscrutable, 'cause what the world can't understand, it can't call you on. Plain-speaking, but double-dipping in irony. All that. Of course, Blur and their set aren't much different at core, but the English are far better than we are at making a coherent statement out of their slackness. Our bands start to say something and then give up halfway; theirs at least get to the punch line. And if Blur's idea of eclectic indie-rock often sounds suspiciously like the Fall or Tones On Tail, it only adds another facet to the joke when it ends up boomaranging right back in their faces. But is it a joke? Are they actually serious about all this alterna-culture fetishism?

Who cares. Even without all the meta-meta stylistics on "Blur," the songs would carry the record. Blur remain Blur despite all the mud and fairy-dust with which they've covered their sound, and a good half of the tracks here approach their best: melodic, finely crafted, and rich in personality.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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