Friday, April 9, 2010

Great Guitar Solos #5: Blur, "Look Inside America" (Graham Coxon)

Available On: Blur, 1997
Solo Bits: 2:42-3:09

I've already talked a bit about Graham Coxon on this blog, particularly in regard to how in terms of wedding technical and creative sensibilities, he is basically an unmatched player. Further stoked by the release of a video of Albarn and Coxon playing "This Is A Low" (unfortunately acoustic style), I felt that it was time to give this man his due.

Truthfully, Coxon may be an integral component of Blur's sound, but Albarn has proven he is capable of making excellent music without Coxon (Think Tank, Gorillaz, etc.). But Blur is just an all-around great band in my opinion, in the sense that they are a group of four great, easily identifiable musicians, and they're generally underappreciated by my friends in part because the British press has made it a habit of oversaturating its content with talk of Blur and Oasis, as if they are the two standard-bearers of Britpop. I can hardly believe that there continues to be some sort of rivalry between Blur and Oasis fans--not because it is more than a decade after the fact but because I can't believe anyone could consider it a contest at all. Blur is a better band than Oasis in every way, ever since their inception, and I'm sure they still are now. Die-hard Oasis fans perplex me, because their argument will often boil down to the fact that Blur does songs like "Girls & Boys" that lack the rawk-authenticity of their main competitors. And they sound gay.

Many critics have noted that a lot of Blur's best work illustrates the tension between Albarn's songwriting and Coxon's playing; I always get the sense that Coxon has no patience for the poppy and pastoral chord changes of Blur's early years and did his best to undermine what could be typical-sounding music by surrounding his lead lines with notes that don't fit harmonically. Coxon's playing is unique because he often chooses not to play the melody of the piece, or at least the chords that Albarn tends to use. He's a restless player, prone to mixing bursts of fuzzy noise with leaden open strings and weird, dissonant arpeggios. An example of his genius at work can be heard in the first nine seconds of "Magic America" off Parklife. What is it that he is even playing here? It sounds like he is playing a lead line that trips over itself and ends on a big, dissonant non-chord. He manages to out-Keith Levene Keith Levene here, who was so fond of trying to find the wrongest notes possible.

In addition, Coxon can simply play as well as anyone. Even Blur's ballads show Coxon's virtuosity to be pretty much engrained in everything he plays--in "Tender," for instance, Coxon manages to make a lead line out of something as banal as a chord change from A to E. Of course, Coxon's reliance on these techniques and his general habit of avoiding bluesy, tonal solos and lead lines has given him a reputation as a "reluctant guitar hero" or an "anti-guitarist." Whatever. He could easily play the sort of derivative motifs of his peers, but his technique is far too personalized. Plus, I'm sure he seems like the kind of guy who just prefers Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca anyway. Like those artists, Coxon doesn't do many typical solos per se, making it difficult for me to find one that really illustrated his skills. "This Is A Low" came to mind, and it is a beautiful moment, as is that moment in the middle of "Coffee & TV" when he stretches out just a few notes past the point of perceptibility. I'm not sure "Look Inside America" is my favorite solo, or even the most representative, but it certainly gets me excited.

So "Look Inside America" is from Blur, the album that was supposed to be Blur's tribute to Pavement as well as a significant departure from the heavily orchestrated Great Escape. It contains, if you remember, "Song 2," probably the most distorted song to ever become a stadium hit, and "Beetlebum," perhaps the most catchy heroin ditty of our time. "Look Inside America" is a song that harks back to previous Blur songs like "Magic America," exploring Albarn's simultaneous need to make it across the Atlantic while remaining aloof and disappointed with American consumer culture. At least that's what I think it's about: I'm too often distracted by Coxon's crunchy ringing chords in the chorus (which admittedly sounds similar to "Country House"). The song adds strings, which is a nice touch, and the whole thing seems to be one of those Blur songs full of sweepy backing vocals and lots of Pixies stop-start moments. The solo itself begins as a sort of bluesy high-octane riff, which follows a brief harp interlude. It only lasts a few seconds, and then the harp returns, followed by Graham doing what he does best, playing combinations of open and fretted notes, weaving slight touches of feedback without overcoming what seems to be his shot at providing a completely alternative melody. The solo just jams, even if not that many notes are actually played. It's just so economical and is played with such rhythmic heft (if it were Oasis, they would probably call it "swagger"). It shows just how much control Coxon has over his instrument.

Coxon is the ingredient that makes even the most tossed-off Blur song sound interesting; it's hard to think of a single song of theirs featuring Coxon that doesn't feature at least one extraordinarily out-of-the-box guitar lead. How many bands have any instrumentalists that fulfill this sort of function? Santiago comes to mind, although I am always unsure as to whether or not it's Frank Black dictating what he's playing anyway. As far as non-guitarists go, maybe Jean-Jacques Burnel. The way he plays, I'd just listen to whatever recordings I could of him goofing off.


  1. Would you believe that my sister exposed her high school students to this song during a lesson on the American Dream?

  2. I bet you could build a master's thesis around Albarn's conflicting (to put it mildly) views of American success and stardom.

  3. Said thesis should include a comparison of the song's opening lines and those in Elvis Costello's "Brilliant Mistake":

    He thought he was the King of America / Where they pour Coca Cola just like vintage wine.

    Those Brits love to point out our soda habit.

  4. Graham is a brilliant guitarlist!!!