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Happiness in Magazines
Transcopic / Astralwerks
t's a tale as old as the Smiths: singer meets guitarist, they form a band. They each bring a distinct and refreshing sound and personality to the proceedings, release a few critically-acclaimed and commercially successful records, then tire of one another, and go their separate ways. Each continues to make music, proving over and over that the whole really was so much more than the sum of the parts. It's a British thing, I guess.
For some reason, while the singer in our story always becomes the bigger star, people seem to assume that the guitarist is the true genius behind the music, and that it is he who will continue to flourish creatively while the singer fades into nostalgia. And, of course, people are always wrong. Every time. Morrissey/Marr, the first of such duos, are the classic case, but have you pulled out that Seahorses album lately? Thought not.
Everyone knows Graham Coxon was the secret weapon in Blur, his subtly complex guitar parts anchoring the tightly-constructed arrangements of singer Damon Albarn's flights of songwriting fancy. Go back and listen to to the riff under the verse of "There's No Other Way." Not the killer lead riff at the opening, but the one that carries the verse. It's fantastic, but you never notice it on the surface because, like Johnny Marr before him, what made Coxon so great was his willingness to take a backseat to his charismatic frontman.
Coxon began making solo records long before he left Blur; Happiness in Magazines is his fifth. Without his help, Blur seems to have devolved into a hopeless art-pop mess, their last record essentially a monument to Albarn's newly-unburdened ego. Coxon, meanwhile, has quietly built up a respectable little catalog of quirky guitar pop, and Happiness appears to be his most accomplished work to date. Will Coxon be the little guitarist who could, the one who changes the age-old ending to our oft-told tale?
Probably not. Happiness opens amiably enough, lead single "Spectacular" announcing itself via Coxon's immediately-recognisable jagged guitar chords, but the song itself is pretty forgettable. The rest of the record basically sounds like the filler cuts on a classic Blur album: good enough in context, but not really strong enough to stand on their own. "Bittersweet Bundle of Misery" is almost a direct rewrite of 13's "Coffee and TV". "All Over Me" is the string-laden ballad, which sounds nice enough on the surface, but lacks the aching vocal melody that carried The Great Escape's "The Universal".
Once in a while Coxon tries to bust out of the mold, and falls flat. "Girl Done Gone" is another one of his embarrassingly shitty fake blues numbers. "People of the Earth" features distort-o voice Coxon berating the whole planet for such crimes of fashion as "you eat hamburgers and go to school" and "you still wear [unintelligible] and tennis shoes" before kicking into the forgettable chorus.
Okay, it's not all bad. In fact, there are a few really great songs. "Freakin' Out" opens with a fabulous class-of-'77 pop riff and features an instantly hummable vocal melody. "Hopeless Friend" is a pleasantly shambling rocker with a good melodic left-turn in the verse. And "Are You Ready" has a simple, hypnotic riff repeated over a wide-open, reverbed-out rhythm section, topped off by some woozy synth strings for a pleasingly spacey effect. There you go, three different styles, all quite successfully executed. But nowhere near enough to sustain a whole album. Besides, the first of those three is track six, meaning you have sit through about twenty minutes of mediocrity before the record gets good.
Similarly, Coxon's lyrics show the occasional hint of promise but are mostly just serviceable. On "No Good Time", he attempts to emulate Albarn's deft eye for caricature/portraiture that made Blur's glory days such a delight:
Graphic designer, you could look no finerAn impressive feat, no? I mean you can just picture them, right? But it's just a tease; too much of the album is filled with nonsense like "You're very pretty and you're tan / But I'd rather sleep with my right hand."
All this is not to say the album is a total disaster, just inconsequential. I'd be more impressed if this was Coxon's first solo outing, but it's his fifth! Shouldn't he be trying something a bit more ambitious by now? There's doubtless a core group of fans that will like it; hell, I still listen to that first Bernard Butler album, and haven't bought a Suede record since he left. But there's little here to recommend it to a wider audience.
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2005-02-03
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