In which the guitarist from one of Britpops most favoured sons (Blur, in case youve been napping) launches his own record label as an outlet for some of the more, uh, challenging talents of his acquaintance (Assembly Line People Program, anyone?) and records his debut solo album in a handful of days, whilst on the wagon hes subsequently fallen off. So, whats it like?
I expected Good Things of "The Skys Too High", not least because Coxons solo contribution to the last Blur album, the sublime "Youre So Great", was that (in my humble opinion) ridiculously overrated and derivative (of Pavement) albums sole bright three minutes. What maybe I wasnt expecting was this enchanting, low-key spinning of Syd Barrett nursery whimsy and Nick Drake fragility. Its as far from a Blur album as it could be possible for any member of that band to travel, and what their, ahem, younger fanbase would make of it I dunno - although its to Coxons credit that publicity surrounding (or rather failing to surround) "The Skys Too High" has been so low key as to fail to register a blip on the Radio 1/"O Zone" scale of things.
The eleven songs presented here are mainly low-key acoustic doodles, save the pure punk rantalong of "Who The Fuck?" (the only song whose lyrics are reprinted on the inner sleeve, it being, in a happy coincidence, the only song that really needs such assistance), the "Hats Off To (Roy) Harper"-style Robert Johnson parody "Mornin Blues" (the only song that merits ejection into the too-weird-for-me pile), the chugging "I Wish" (which includes the lyric of 1998 in the line "I wish I could bring Nick Drake back to life") and the almost pop-shiny "Thats All I Wanna Do", wherein his crystaline acoustic guitars get swamped by fuzzy grunge attack halfway through. The remainder are slow, melancholic ditties that seem to live on points between "Pink Moon" and "The Madcap Laughs", coming off better when they swing towards the former, such as the muted, "Black Eyed Dog"-esque "Whered You Go?".
For me "The Sky Is Too High" eclipses at least 40% of Blurs output (i.e. everything bar the "Modern Life" trilogy of albums, which, lets be honest, even Blur are unlikely to better now that theyve discovered that the true path to critical and commercial nirvana (pun unintended) is paved with scratchy lo-fi lite), but its appeal is far from universal, seemingly dividing normally rational people into camps who either love it or take it off after a few tracks. Its not a classic, but it satisfies its brief better than most albums released these days do. (Gift alert: the limited edition vinyl comes with a free postcard!)
GRAHAM COXON The Golden D (Transcopic)
Graham Coxon's debut solo album "The Sky Is Too High" mixed Syd Barrett whimsy and Nick Drake wistfulness to generally pleasing, if not earth-shattering, effect. Second time around the Blur guitarist arrives amped, cranked and distorted, which, bearing in mind the Soft Machine apocalypse that was the "13" album is not an entirely pleasurable prospect. Much of "The Golden D" - which Coxon performed, produced and illustrated all by himself, and released on his own label - is a petulant racket, a game given away by song titles such as "The Fear", "My Idea Of Hell", "Fags And Failure" and "Leave Me Alone". Coxon has an enduring interest in sub-Sonic Youth guitar noises, and here he gets to try out his entire collection of same, one by one, spicing proceedings up occasionally with the Aphex Twin-style pummelling beat punishment of "Satan I Gatan" and the bizarre "Oochy Woochy", which sounds like the Muppet Show house band covering "Birth Of The Cool"-era Miles Davis. "The Golden D" veers closest to melody on the two covers of songs by seminal early-80s Boston hardcore band Mission Of Burma, "Fame And Fortune" and "That's When I Reach For My Revolver", the latter having been made rather more famous when interpreted by a pre-coffee table ubiquity Moby during his mercifully brief death metal phase. But ultimately "The Golden D" is the sound of an indie band guitarist with experimental leanings given 45 minutes in which to please nobody but himself, with all the lack of quality control and higher purpose that might suggest.
GRAHAM COXON Crow Sit On Blood Tree (Transcopic)
This is the Blur guitarist's third solo album, and like its predecessors it's released on his own label, entirely self-written, produced, played and packaged. In short, it has no excuses for not presenting the "real" Graham Coxon, unencumbered by considerations such as hit singles or how the fanbase might react. But strangely enough, given the increasingly wilfully obscure left-field dabblings perpetrated by his day job partners in recent years, "Crow Sit On Blood Tree" finds the solo Coxon veering erratically towards the mainstream. There's certainly more variety here than before; in fact this here album stakes an easy claim to being his best non-Blur set yet.
Opener "Empty Word" rages like a recently dumped Sonic Youth fan, but on the next track "I'm Goin' Away" Coxon plays King Of The Camden Blues Singers, all bottleneck guitar and dustbowl atmospherics. "Bonfires" comes across as spooky and frail but close to heartfelt, whilst the single "Thank God For The Rain" finds him going Guthrie, or at least going Dylan going Guthrie, shaking his head at a catalogue of North London ills that could almost be "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" drenching The Good Mixer. "You Will Never Be" even makes a couple of attempts to break into a hamfisted cover of Hendrix's "In From The Storm". But for all this innovation "Crow Sit On Blood Tree" is still a Graham Coxon album, by turns cranky, frustrating and dourly delightful, and tagging it as his most approachable yet certainly won't bring Gorillaz-style big bucks his way. But if you find the idea of something that sounds like Pavement, Sonic Youth and Nick Drake collapsed in a heap appealing, you'll be among old friends here.
On vinyl "Crow Sit On Blood Tree" arrives in one of Coxon's trademark brown cardboard sleeves, and is pressed on four sides of impressively dynamic sounding black stuff, rendering every crunch and quiver pleasing to the ear. It even includes an additional print of the cover art signed by the artist in blue ballpoint, which is a sweet gesture.
GRAHAM COXON The Kiss Of Morning (Transcopic)
Graham Coxon's fourth solo album (can it really be classified as a solo album given that he's no longer a member of Blur?) doesn't represent a radical departure from the template adhered to by the previous three. Crystalline acoustic guitars are forced to negotiate jagged melodies, there's a saloonful of if-Nick-Drake-were-from-Camden avant-melancholia, a gloriously full production is coaxed out of the kind of vintage studio equipment most bands wouldn't trust with their demo sketches and the whole is wrapped in one of Coxon's trademark brown cardboard sleeves, accompanied this time around by a big value-added booklet.
So how can "The Kiss Of Morning" sound superficially so similar to any other Graham Coxon album without being a formulaic handle-cranking exercise? Perhaps because, as the unattributed booklet quote confirms, "If anyone ever turned simplicity into an art form it's the Coxon, sharing a rare quality in his honest and direct approach (both in music and lyrics) whilst consistently avoiding common commercial ploys". Whilst most of the album appears comfortingly familiar in its nervous, spidery, angst-ridden way, there are still moments that surprise. There's something deeply troubled about "Live Line", a suicide note written on the underground wall that justifies the cover suggestion "File under psychiatric". "Mountain Of Regret" casts Coxon and famed steel guitarist B J Cole entirely successfully as a two-man Workingman's Dead, whilst "Latte" takes the perils of coffee as its quirky concern. "Song For The Sick" is the album's most astonishing moment, a spray of pure vitriol that makes "How Do You Sleep?" look like "Songs Of Praise".
If "The Kiss Of Morning" is just another quirky, charming Graham Coxon album then it serves its purpose admirably. But, given recent upheavals in Blur's base camp, his symbolic status as the anti-Gorillaz suggests it couldn't have appeared at a more significant time.
GRAHAM COXON/SWITCHES 53 Degrees, Preston 20 October 2006
This was my second visit to 53 Degrees, and, as before, it seemed as though the place was named after its inside temperature (in Fahrenheit) rather than its latitude. Its a remarkably good venue, especially considering its a student union, with fine acoustics, decent sightlines and a controlled climate.
Switches post-Strokes indie rock barely raises the mercury, but they demonstrate a thumping confidence, and as soon as I realise singer/guitarist Matt Bishop is sporting a Man Who Sold The World t-shirt all the glam smudges and Spiders From Mars guitar moves suddenly make sense.
Graham Coxons solo back catalogue is now half a dozen albums deep, albums on which hes given some of us strummy folk, bottleneck blues, uncategorisable weirdness and bouncy, ranty punk pop. Guess which flavours in evidence tonight? Throughout a generously specified setlist of a couple dozen songs, the tempo rarely drops and the shouting hardly stops. His second-in-command guitarist dons an acoustic axe for a tune or two, but soon the pace is cranked back up to relentless again. Consequently, the evening is, for want of a better word, a bit of a blur. Coxons songs even those on this years career-besting Love Travels At Illegal Speeds - are the kind of productions that seem crammed with fizzy brilliance whilst being listened to yet evaporate from the memory immediately after, kinda like Ash with attention deficit disorder. So we got the big hits like Spectacular, Bittersweet Bundle Of Misery and Freakin Out, lots of pogo-worthy moments from his new album, both sides of an all-new 7 single set for imminent release and the occasional relic from another century such as a feedback-raddled I Wish (i.e. the one that contains the lyric I wish I could bring Nick Drake back to life) and an appropriately splenetic Who The Fuck?. A cover of The Jams shortest, sharpest shock, All Mod Cons, was barely distinguishable from Coxons own material. But as for the wistful melancholia that so often crops up on his albums, well, youd be reduced to whistling it yourself.
To be fair, he packed exactly the kind of live show most of the audience were expecting, or hoping for, but from an artist with far more than just the one dimension to his music it seemed as though an opportunity to educate, as well as entertain, had been wasted.
THE GRAHAM COXON POWER ACOUSTIC ENSEMBLE Royal Northern College Of Music 11 November 2009
“Thank you for coming to this recital of my last album “The Spinning Top””. Coxon is still surprisingly diffident and jittery on stage despite being/not being/being Blur’s guitarist; he seems like a Camden Woody Allen. Tonight Coxon’s band varies fluidly between sextet and tentet as the music demands. That number includes two Indian musicians, two phenomenally talented female backing singers and Britpsych legend Robyn Hitchcock on perfectly coordinated polka dot shirt and guitar.
What I didn’t remember from listening to the album, but which is very apparent tonight, is how songs such as “Look Into The Light” and “In The Morning” swell from credible Nick Drake impersonations to hypnotic acoustic “Astral Weeks”-esque ragas. In fact, the few songs on which Coxon plays fierce, distorted electric guitar rather shatter the contemplative mood of the evening, rendering proceedings ever so slightly uncomfortably schizoid.
Post-interval, Coxon helpfully describes the album as a story about birth, troubled childhood, marriage, war and death, after which the protagonist is brought back to life by a female figure somewhere between Salome and Medea. “November”, like many of these songs, seems much more instrumentally elaborate in performance, those backing singers doing spinetingling things with their voices. At one point Coxon claims it’s the first time they’ve all played together; if true it makes their relaxed togetherness all the more remarkable.
Following the completion of the evening’s programme, Coxon returns to bash out a few solo acoustic numbers from his “The Kiss Of Morning” album, including “Latte”, “Live Line” and “Baby, You’re Out Of Your Mind”, closing with a cover of the pre-teen Elizabeth Cotten’s folksy “Babe It Ain’t No Lie”. An unconventional evening, certainly, but very fine within its self-imposed limits.
GRAHAM COXON / THE NECTARINES Sound Control, Manchester 19 April 2012
The Nectarines are from Bradford, but appear to have been cloned from Thom Yorke circa “Pablo Honey”, their music initially doing little to dispel this impression. Proceedings take a bizarre turn as their set proceeds, though, with their second and third songs sounding as though they’d ripped up the sheet music for Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times”, thrown the pieces in the air and sellotaped them back together wherever they landed, sudden pauses and dramatic lurches included.
Tonight Graham Coxon fronts a six-piece band, half of whom are guitarists. (He deserves to have “Free Bird” shouted at him for that, not that anybody does; the louder elements of the audience are too busy yelling “Parklife” and the “woo hoos” from “Song 2”.) They launch into a selection of what might be termed his greatest hits, including “I Can’t Look At Your Skin”, “Standing On My Own Again” and “I Don’t Wanna Go Out”, the latter finishing and then lurching, zombie-like, back to life. It’s all very post-punk power pop in a 21st century Buzzcocks or The Undertones kind of way (not that Buzzcocks and The Undertones aren’t 21st century in their current active configurations, of course) but also a bit monotonous, each song essentially being a variation on what surrounds it. He then take s a left-field lurch into material from new album “A+E”, which appropriates Jah Wobble’s subterranean bass rumble, sonar pulses and motorik drum programming to positive effect, without the whole genre splurge sounding like some kind of overstuffed sonic pizza (or a recent Paul Weller album). The evening’s highlights, though, are those rare less frenetic moments such as the almost balladic “All Over Me” and “Tripping Over”, the latter still finding room for Coxon’s acrid guitar soloing.
A kinda exhilarating but also somewhat unsatisfying evening, then, despite all the best efforts of everyone involved and sound and sightlines that significantly improve on those during my previous visit to Sound Control, to see The War On Drugs.