Under the heading of Things That Annoy Me, overdone British accents would have to be right up there near the top of the list. On Blur's latest album, Parklife, Damon Albarn's accent is just about as grating as that of Q101's shrill and omnipresent Samantha James. I don't have anything against British accents in principle--in fact I would have to plead guilty to having been, er, susceptible to them in the past--but the fact that Blur seems to be laying it on thick just for effect really gets up my nose, as the limeys would say. If the desired effect is to get a rise out of us Yanks, Blur succeeds on that count with me.
The main problem with Parklife, of course, isn't the accents. Peter Margasak has written about the lurking tendency in American music journalism to praise "any British band capable of not sucking (no mean trick, granted), especially if they're doing something just a touch different." But despite the hyperventilating praise it's drawn from certain segments of the press, Parklife isn't doing anything different. The album does evoke the down-market sleaze of British seaside resorts like Brighton and Blackpool quite effectively, but it does it by imitating bands who've done it before. The carnivalesque sounds on songs like "The Debt Collector" and "Far Out" and the liner photos of the band at a sleazy dog track are supposed to reflect the declining fortunes of modern England, I guess. The question that remains is whether you'd want to visit the tatty environs of an English version of Atlantic City. My answer is that a day trip would be OK, but a long-term visit is not in my travel plans.
"Girls & Boys," the single that's gotten some radio play here, marries the syncopated synthesizers of early Depeche Mode to the atonal, emotionless vocals of the dance-pop band Erasure, and the result is a sly paean to the mating habits of British youth on holiday. "Tracy Jacks" is a Beatles-ish diary of a day in the life of a typical English office worker; if someone had played this track for me and told me it was an outtake from a 1983 Jam record, I probably would have believed it. "Bank Holiday" is a slamming Clash-style rocker about working stiffs getting drunk on their day off. There's even a loping, Mighty Lemon Drops-sounding song ("Magic America") thrown in about how stupid and ridiculous America is--now there's an original idea. The band that Blur most consistently bring to mind is the Jam--in their look, their lyrics, their attitude. But near the end of Parklife, on the one song that does convey some honest emotion, "This Is a Low," Blur metamorphoses into Paul Weller's subsequent band, the jazzy, faux-Motown Style Council. It's as if Blur's goal is to perform letter-perfect renditions of their favorite English power-pop bands--accents, atmosphere, and all. They succeed. The only cost is originality.
Blur aren't the next Smiths--they aren't even the next Suede. They're merely the latest in a line of clever imitators, and this sort of smirking, derivative anomie has been done better (as star-struck copycats go, Suede has Blur beat hands down). They're not evocative of bands like the Jam, XTC, or the Teardrop Explodes but merely imitative of them, mixmastering their sounds with the requisite English cleverness and a moderate dose of panache. Maybe with everything 15 years old seeming new again, English boys wearing skinny jeans and cropped hair and striking cockney poses are a breath of fresh air to some. To me, it's just a waft of the stale cotton-candy breeze from a run-down Brighton pier.