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Blur Fades; B*witched Charms

[whitespace] Blur
Trendspotting: England's Blur proves its talent for spotting a musical trend and following it. B*witched (below) is just as trendy, but a lot more upbeat.

Blur's '13' is unlucky; B*witched adds Irish lilt to girl pop

By Gina Arnold

WITH FARES to London currently under $400, England has never seemed so close. Once there, however, Anglophile Americans might be sad to see that Gaps and 7-Elevens line the high streets, which are parked up with Fords and SUVs. A new shopping mall has even opened in London, thus proving again that America has indeed achieved global hegemony.

On the other hand, the band Blur is a good reminder that there are some cultural differences that still exist between the two countries--even between the kind of young, college-educated white people who make up Blur's fans in both countries. The decade-old band is extremely popular in England, headlining giant arenas. But the only aspect of Blur that ever pops through to American ears is the one-bar "whee-oo," the opening notes of the song "Song 2," which is now the signature sound for the Intel Pentium processor commercial.

Blur began life as one of the leading lights of the Britpop movement, whose bands write quirky, lyric-heavy, Kinksian-pop songs about being disgruntled with British life. In 1995, in the midst of a war with Oasis for the title of coolest Britpop band, Blur's The Great Escape LP described the frustrations of living in pre-Tony Blair Britain with a certain amount of lyrical and musical aplomb.

So much for narrative, however. Blur has an unfortunate penchant for raiding other styles rather than developing its own. The band probably considers this tactic a form of being in the here and now, but another way of looking at it is to say that Blur will jump on any trend.

The band now apparently conceives of itself as the Pavement of Britain--that is, arty, tricky, independent and influenced by bands like Neu, Kraftwerk and the Velvet Underground. In fact, however, it's no such thing. Pavement uses surreal lyrics and a fuzzy, lo-fi sound, but Blur only gets that effect by overproduction and an overly busy overlay. Perhaps Blur means to be moody and spooky, but for the most part the band has created a bunch of boring soundscapes, unrelieved by Damon Albarn's undistinguished voice and lyrics.

Frankly, Blur's new album, 13 (Virgin), is not very good. It sounds like a sick cross between Canned Heat, Suede and DJ Shadow. A heavy fuzz hangs like a curtain over the "songs," which also abound with loops and sound effects and vibraphone.

Albarn seemingly forgot to write tunes for filler like "Trailerpark," "Mellow Song" and "Battle." And although "Coffee and TV" actually has a hook, it's the only one here. The ballad "1992" also boasts a melody, but it is a thin, whining one. "Tender," the first single from the album, has been called gospel-tinged because it has a gospel-like chorus. That doesn't make it good.

In the press for the album, Albarn has used phrases like "artistically liberating," "experimental," "dissatisfaction with pop music" and the always-frightening "challenging." Translation: 13 was fun to make but is a big bore to listen to.

The album (named for the studio at which it was recorded, not for the song by Alex Chilton) was produced by William Orbit, who produced Madonna's Ray of Light. That may account for the amount of electronic effects that riddle each track, the late-'90s equivalent of weedle-o-wee guitar solos that made late-'70s guitar rock so dull. But if that's all the band can think of to pep up its sound, then it's time for Blur to fade away and radiate.

B*witched A RECORD THAT goes down a lot easier is the self-titled debut (on Epic) by the Irish group B*witched. The group is being billed as the Irish Spice Girls, a not inappropriate title, although the members seem much less cartoony.

B*witched consists of four peppy young women (Sinead, Edele, Keavy and Lindsay) who do the same kind of dueling, interchangeable vocals that our friends the Spices did. The vocals are set atop danceable, upbeat pop and then shot through with twinges of soul and rap. (FYI, Edele and Keavy are twins; their older brother, Shane, belongs to Boyzone, a.k.a. the Irish Backstreet Boys.)

What makes B*witched special is the addition of Irish fiddle and deedily-diddily jig patterns to the mix. It's a sound that, though traditional, has managed to infiltrate almost every aspect of music the world over and is always a kick to hear. On songs like "C'est La Vie" and "Rev It Up," the technique is used sparingly, but wisely. The band's first U.S. single, "To You I Belong," is a straight-ahead girly ballad, indistinguishable from the fare of Brandy, Britney and Celine, except for faint touches of the Irish instrument the tin whistle. In fact, the only songs that are boring are the ones that lack the Irish touch.

Don't look to B*witched for lyrical genius. "Sun is high, sky is blue!" runs a typical refrain. Another sing-song chorus goes "Say you will, say you won't, say you'll do what I don't." And so on. It's all very positive, sunny and cute--a refreshingly dumb alternative to German-influenced art rock. Fans of the Spice Girls, the Corrs, Enya and, of course, Riverdance might be charmed by this lightweight but unstoppably tuneful record, which, if nothing else, proves the sheer versatility of Irish traditional music.

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From the March 31-April 7, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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