Smear Campaign

Blur's Graham Coxon flat-out refuses to reveal his alias.
"That wouldn't be very good to tell you, because then it wouldn't be my code name, would it?" says the guitarist in a pissy tone, as if being pressed to spill vital state secrets.

Such anonymity games are apparently standard practice for bands of almost any stature these days. Evidently, checking into a hotel in Anytown, U.S.A., under a pseudonym is the best way to avoid unwanted contact with crazed fans -- or, perhaps, a machete-wielding nut case. And while if you're U2 such precautions are understandable, in light of its modest American profile thus far, are they really necessary for Blur?

"Nah, I think it's our tour manager's private little joke with himself," says Coxon.

Still, joke or no, Coxon refuses to cave -- even though tomorrow, when Blur moves on to the next city, his code name is likely to be something else entirely. Given that Coxon is in little danger of being accosted anywhere except, perhaps, backstage, the whole thing seems a bit ludicrous. But what the hey. We'll grant him his spy-thriller fantasy. After all, this is supposed to be the year Blur makes its big play to conquer America, the country that has slagged the group everywhere but in the hipper crannies of the music press going on six years now. Whether the band will reach its goal depends on what's the best way to assert commercial dominance -- is it achieved through a slow, progressive wooing of the CD-buying public, or through an overwhelming and decisive audio/video attack on the masses?

The way it looks now, Blur will have to hope the slow, progressive approach is the one that works. After 26 weeks on the charts, the group's fifth full-length release, the periodically wonderful Blur, has sunk to Billboard's chilly hundredsomething depths. The frenetic video for the disc's first single, "Song 2," made an initial splash on MTV, but the ripples appear to be disappearing a bit faster than first predicted. And while the teasing Bowie-ish opus "M.O.R." seems a dandy choice for a wham-bang follow-up, it risks being a bit too reminiscent of the Thin White Duke's Lodger-era coyness for U.S. listeners to stomach.

But that's not half-bad, mind you, for a group that's spent the last half-decade thumbing its nose at silly Yankee guitar bands, its pithy leader, Damon Albarn, publicly dismissing grunge as little more than a distraction in need of a refined English touch. But rather than offering America a comprehensible alternative, Blur instead released one of the most sophisticated -- and stubbornly parochial -- CDs of the decade, 1994's Parklife, which was followed a year later by the even more impenetrable The Great Escape.

Leaving the States to its more homogenous rivals in Oasis, Blur proceeded to light up the U.K. and Europe with its jarring stylistic shifts and high-minded social commentary. Parklife, for example, leapfrogs from strung-out techno-disco (think pilled-up Depeche Mode) to angular, tongue-in-cheek guitar pop not unlike XTC to exceedingly quaint, Kinks-style revelry, sweetening the capricious stew with silky orchestration, melodica and peppy plastic-soul horns. Lyricist Albarn seemed the most intent on preserving his band's Anglocentric vision, carrying his preoccupation with the foibles of British society to lengths unheard of since Ray Davies's classic 1965'68 output.

Coxon admits that Blur's culturally exclusive vision and its flakiness in the studio haven't helped its case on this side of the Atlantic. And while he makes no apologies ("We've always just treated each song independently"), Coxon is happy to shift the blame to his partner.

"Damon's always been quite fond of horns and things. That was an indulgence," he says. "I've never been a big fan of horns in pop music. I'm not a big pop music fan, really."

Sometime last year, a funny thing happened in the Blur camp. The band members took a break, dropping out of sight to rethink their direction and reassess the '90s Brit-pop movement they'd spearheaded. They began to take a little more stock of what they saw and heard around them, and what they dug was coming, ironically enough, from the U.S. Meanwhile, the normally divergent musical tastes of Coxon and his longtime chum Albarn had begun to converge in a few spots. Namely, they found common ground in the scrappy experimental spirit of Americans such as Beck, Tortoise and Pavement.

Just like that, the stateside bands that Blur had considered their subtlety-starved inferiors didn't seem so bad after all. Upon the release of Blur early this year, the group and its label, Virgin, gave every indication that they'd be pushing hard to win over the U.S. market. That surge to pander -- particularly schoolboy-cute Albarn's sudden willingness to pose shirtless for photographers like a wannabe Gavin Rossdale (embarrassing low point: a soggy, beefcake pool shot that wound up on the cover of Request) -- has been somewhat dispiriting at times. Happily, those sorts of distractions have been largely eliminated in recent months, thanks primarily to a hectic road schedule that, for the time being, has freed Blur from the clutches of the publicity machine.

Still, all things considered, the exposure has paid off, as the band is now toying with its first major American breakthrough. So far, Blur has sold more than 300,000 copies in this country, more than the group's last two releases combined, and it is easily the band's most approachable outing to date. Blur marks a fresh beginning for the group, and the decision to self-title the CD was as intentional as keeping its sound as far from polished as a perfectionist producer such as Steven Street (Morrissey, the Cranberries) could manage.

Oddly enough, though, Blur retains the feel of a slaved-over affair, as if significant amounts of energy were expended on the disc's pseudo-spontaneity. The one thing that doesn't come off as contrived, however, is the song writing, especially the highly personalized bent of Albarn's lyrics, which are refreshingly cryptic in spots ("Tea, tea and coffee, help to start the day / Tea, tea and coffee, shakin' all the way").

No less a revelation are Albarn's vocals. From the droopy Ian Hunter drawl on "Look Inside America" to the uncanny Bowie imitation that carries the glammy power ballad "Strange News from Another Star" to a rather languid bout of vulnerability on "Beetlebum" (an actual love song, for chrissakes), his singing bends and contorts with the music's every turn. A small arsenal of vocal enhancements and effects lend intrigue to more experimental numbers such as the high-velocity punk rave "Chinese Bombs" and the disturbing CD closer "Essex Dogs," an interesting, if stunted, attempt at trip-hop. That last, with its references to cellular phones, graffiti and terminal pubs, is also an off-color tribute to Albarn's home turf, and it is the closest Blur comes to making an outright social statement.

Albarn and Coxon first met in 1980 as students at the Stanway Comprehensive School, where they sang together in the choir. Coxon had moved with his family to Colchester, Essex, in the late '70s, and he quickly gravitated toward drama and music, learning saxophone before moving on to guitar at age 12. Both of Blur's co-founders come from artistic families: Coxon is the son of a musician, and Albarn's dad, Keith, was a key player in England's late-'60s psychedelic rock scene.

Blur assembled in the late '80s as an unapologetically strange art-punk band called Seymour. By then, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rountree (another Colchester native) were in the fold, and the lineup has remained stable ever since. In 1989, the group re-christened itself Blur -- a term well suited to the band's burgeoning smear of creative contradictions -- and signed to Britain's Food Records. Blur's 1991 debut, Leisure, was an odd bird, to say the least, inspired as it was by the group's dual interest in the multilayered guitar noise of My Bloody Valentine and the cosmic conceptual excursions of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. But by the release of Modern Life Is Rubbish in 1992, Blur's commentary had become more pointed, its sound cleaner and more reflective of Albarn's pop sensibilities. Come 1994's Parklife, Britain's love affair with Blur was on solid ground, and its follow-up, The Great Escape, went on to sell in the millions worldwide.

Now that Blur has survived -- and, in fact, thrived -- this long without America's help, you have to wonder if superstardom on U.S. terms would be anything more than a hollow victory for the group. Coxon's sour, uncompromising attitude toward Blur's current nibble at domestic success pretty much confirms that suspicion.

"There is no way I'm going to tailor my music for people who watch MTV and wear fucking cowboy boots. I'd rather shoot myself in the head," says Coxon, seething. "Those are the people who are coming to the shows now, making idiots out of themselves -- punching themselves for a couple of fast songs and pissing everyone else off. Then they spend the rest of the show looking confused. If that's what heavy rotation on MTV does, then I'm not interested."

Well, so much for having it both ways. And given his contempt toward the newer members of Blur's domestic fan base, feel free to assign Coxon your own code name. "Ingrate," perhaps?

Blur performs Monday, September 29, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17. Smash Mouth opens. For info, call 629-3700.