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Last Updated: Monday, 5 May, 2003, 08:48 GMT 09:48 UK
Blur's scaled-down triumph

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Blur with Damon Albarn (bottom)
Blur's seventh studio album is their first since Damon Albarn's massive success with his Gorillaz side-project and also the first without acclaimed guitarist Graham Coxon.

Since the departure of Coxon, early in its genesis, Blur's Think Tank has been tarred with the suggestion the band are an imploding entity.

Would Think Tank be any good? Would they in fact finish it, no longer boasting a crucial element?

The answer is yes. Think Tank, recorded partly in Morocco with Fatboy Slim on production duties, sounds utterly confident, sure-footed, and, in some ways, defiant.

A decade ago Blur - Albarn, Coxon, bass player Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree - were proper, pin-up popstars at the crest of the music-as-fashion Britpop movement.

Now, hitting their mid-30s, they no longer seem to be connected to the pop world in the same way. And Think Tank seems shaped by two of the extra-curricular projects Albarn has busied himself with recently.

Successful side-projects

Gorillaz allowed him to make hugely successful pop music without using his personality to sell it (the band's public persona were animated characters) and Mali Music, a record made with west African musicians in Mali, was a world music classic.

In the last three years, then, Albarn has simultaneously formed a side-project more successful than his day job, and been able to indulge his more leftfield sensibilities without his bandmates. Some are surprised Blur have recorded a new album at all.

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Think Tank is no Parklife or Great Escape, and much more in keeping with the eclectic mix of 1997's Blur (which included Beetlebum and Song 2).

Ambulance starts with minimalist electronic beeps, bass that sounds like it is being played in a cave, and gently insistent drums. The soothing vocals and gentle saxophone sound little like the Blur of old. It is an odd but engaging opener.

Crazy Beat, on the other hand, revisits the squalling, aggressive punk that has always occasionally surfaced - it is not dissimilar to Bank Holiday from Parklife. And it is one of the few moments where guitars are in the equation.

African location

Some of their best songs seem to have been given almost apologetic titles - Good Song and Sweet Song are amongst the best things the band have come up with, the latter built around beautifully tender piano.

The exoticism of its African location wafts in intermittently, but never in a showy or pretentious manner. And you cannot begrudge the band for wanting to try new things.

Blur virtually defined Britpop with their 1993 album Modern Life is Rubbish, and had to deal with the inevitable backlash of being flagbearers for what became a tired, backwards-looking movement.

With Oasis continuing to mine familiar territory, Blur are making bold and vital music nearly 15 years after they formed, and having lost a seemingly vital member. Few bands can say that.

Think Tank is out on Monday on Parlophone.

Hear a clip from track Good Song

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