Posts Tagged ‘damon albarn’

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Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

March 12, 2010

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

Back in 2001, I experienced the first Gorillaz album in the way that all parties involved may have found ideal: with absolutely no context. I was eleven, and I hadn’t heard of Damon Albarn, Dan the Automator or Del tha Funkee Homosapien. Just about the only thing I knew about Gorillaz was that they weren’t real, but I still struggled to put animated faces to voices, sounds to instruments and some kind of method to the madness. The album was to me the most alien thing I had ever heard, an amalgamation of┬árock, pop, punk, hip hop, electronic, dub and world music. Nothing could have prepared me for it.

Once again, I was eleven, and mostly used to listening to pop radio, whatever that might have been at the time. Everything changed for me after Gorillaz. “Re-Hash” became my Summer anthem and “Que Pasa Contigo” melted the winter freeze. I stared at my crappy stereo in confusion and wonder during “Sound Check (Gravity),” I daydreamed to “Man Research,” and I nearly shit my pants when I first heard “Left Hand Suzuki Method” (For an idea of exactly how naive I was, I thought the bong hit sample at the beginning was the opening of a can of soda). It’s even still a bit unsettling for me to hear the album now, if only because of my history with it. In a world of its own and on its own terms, it pushed its own boundaries incredibly far, and I’ll always love it.

Gorillaz

By the time I was fourteen, I was in high school and had begun to branch out a bit. I listened to Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, and my Led Zeppelin t-shirts were starting to develop pit stains. I anticipated the release of Demon Days for months, and when it finally came out I bought it in Best Buy (what seems even for now to be a relatively dated practice). A dark, brooding pop album, it frustrated me as much as it entertained. There were familiar elements, but mostly it was new and uncomfortable, for me an early exploration into dirty, dark hip hop and experimental pop music and a collection of ideas and styles just as diverse as those on the self titled album. Even more strange names were credited in the liner notes, most of which I had not heard of, but I came to associate Danger Mouse with this kind of an edgy, diverse sound. He did Demon Days well, and I wondered for years how it could be followed.

Demon Days

And now, with the release of Gorillaz’s third studio LP, Plastic Beach, I can reasonably expect not just an album of music, but an experience. Of course, the band has relaunched their website and the first of no doubt many music videos. Various release versions of Plastic Beach contain storyboards, videos and other exclusive content, and a story is being slowly spun to outline the virtual band’s current state. In short: All of the world’s trash and pieces of its history have floated to the middle of the Indian Ocean to form a massive artificial island known as The Plastic Beach. Gorillaz, consisting of singer 2D, bassist Murdoc, guitarist Noodle and drummer Russel, have now made it their home and production studio, where they have crafted a new concept album that deals with, among other issues, pirates, consumerism and modern living. It is a big production to keep track of, but it is important to zone in on what is really the vital event here, the release of a new Gorillaz album.

I concede that I was expecting something much different than what I got from Plastic Beach, perhaps something much more sinister, in the vein of the demented Demon Days, but in fact Plastic Beach is far more accessible than either of Gorillaz’s previous studio LPs, smash hits included. Damon Albarn has even said it is the poppiest thing he has ever been involved with; this may be a stretch, but it is easy to see where he is coming from. The album is bejeweled with orchestral strings, melodious pop hooks and whimsical electronic textures. The majority of the victory achieved in Plastic Beach can be attributed to Albarn himself and his penchant for pop songcraft. Many of the album’s best songs are ones that feature him exclusively, and he handles the vast majority of the production work on the album, choosing not to collaborate with a guest producer such as Dan the Automator or Danger Mouse.

But the Gorillaz camp still features an ever revolving cast of guest collaborators, even if it’s most distinguishable feature is its now well established groundwork. De La Soul once again provides playful rhyming and Mos Def makes two appearances: The freestyle massacre “Sweepstakes” and the lead single “Stylo.” “Stylo” doesn’t quite get off the ground and flying like prior Gorillaz hits, but it’s probably much more compelling, featuring a mysterious melody, great work from Mos Def to coincide with his recent comeback and a soaring vocal part from the great jack-of-all-trades Bobby Womack.

Stylo

But the more obscure guest spots are perhaps even more effective. Grime rappers Bashy and Kano kill it on the dual-spirited “White Flag,” the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music provides melodic strings on the same track and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano sings wonderfully on two of the album’s best songs, “Empire Ants” and “To Binge.” The album seems to hit nirvana on the former, which morphs from gentle seaside guitar strumming into rhythmic ambient techno bliss, while the latter provides a longing, romantic melody, and is the most real this unreal band has ever been. Some of the album’s other guest artists, particularly Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed, seem like novelty inclusions, but they play their parts well and only further highlight the fact that since the beginning, the Gorillaz project has been a whole hell of a lot of fun.

And so we ask, if Damon Albarn wants his projects to feature prominent alt-rappers alongside indie heroes, why not? Behind an animated facade, he can do just about anything without it seeming awkward, and we give his and Jamie Hewlett’s characters the benefit of the doubt, perhaps more than he himself. This accounts for how many curveballs Plastic Beach throws, and how often they hit the mark. From front to back, just about every track here features unexpected elements. The professional orchestrations on “White Flag” and “Cloud of Unknowing” are idiosyncratic but genuinely charming, Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed get silly, and the closing “Pirate Jet” is about the most understated ending imaginable for such a big-thinking album. We trust all these elements because they earn our respect legitimately and are all around pleasures on their own terms.

Which isn’t to say that Plastic Beach as a whole doesn’t deal with some pretty poignant issues, most prominently undercurrents involving consumer culture. This is nothing terribly new for Gorillaz, who have always had the idea of commercialism at their hearts. By the time Plastic Beach is done with its chart assault, Gorillaz will almost certainly have sold over twenty million albums. It’s hard to delegitimize that kind of success, especially now when being a Gorillaz alumni yields much greater profit than simple street cred; it results in incredible rewards and songs that a lot of people like myself hold dear for years and years. Certainly this will be the case with Plastic Beach as well, though it reaches that ends by a much different means. It’s worth exploring why, and we might end up doing that until the next Gorillaz LP, but for now this album is already well on its way to building another legacy.

Gorillaz

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Massive Attack – Heligoland

February 19, 2010

Massive Attack - Heligoland

When it comes to Massive Attack, my general policy is to go with my gut. I say this while understanding that their two indisputable masterworks, Blue Lines and Mezzanine, were hardly easy albums and Protection and 100th Window were sleeper successes that took years of close listening to come to grips with. All of these albums, despite their ever-shifting reputation, were albums that I decided I really liked after casting away everything I knew about Massive Attack: where they were from, what they were intending, what anyone else thought of them and how said albums compared to one another. The result of this isolated thinking are four albums that are connected by subtle elements but are otherwise quite individual.

Heligoland, Massive Attack’s sixth album and first since 2004’s soundtrack to the film Danny the Dog, has almost nothing riding on the question of its success. Massive Attack, whatever form the name may represent (in this case, the permanent 3D Del Naja and the newly rejoined Daddy G), have proved over and over again that they have nothing to prove. You don’t have to do more than just say “Blue Lines” and “Mezzanine” in any argument about who has been the most influential trip-hop artist of all time, and their catalogue carries a wealth of hidden treasures that act as a backbone to the best run of singles in recent memory, as documented on the 2006 retrospective Collected. This lack of precedence informed Danny the Dog‘s span of styles ranging from ambient interludes to shotgun hardcore techno. More than anything, Danny the Dog sounded like Massive Attack crystallized in its purest form, say what you will about its lack of clear highlights. Just about the only thing we can gain from Heligoland, besides another great album, is being able to rest easy knowing these guys are still making music.

But when listening to this album, it’s really difficult to forget the other albums which it suggests fragments of, and even harder to forget the six year gestation period. The fact is, several years of hard work should have yielded a much more focused album than this. Judging by production and album art, it seems as if 3D Del Naja got a knock on his door and found that the deadline crept up on him. Even if these songs are written well, they should definitely sound better, and most of the production work on Heligoland doesn’t hold up to the amount of talent poured into them.

There is, in fact, an almost ridiculous amount of starpower Heligoland. One of Massive Attack’s perennial draws has been their fantastic organization and execution with guest vocalists, and Heligoland rings in the likes of longtime collaborator Horace Andy, TV on the Radio Vocalist Tunde Adebimpe, Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, Martina Topley Bird (most well known for her work with Tricky), Guy Garvey of Elbow and Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz. Other personnel includes Adrian Utley of Portishead, David Sitek of TV on the Radio and Tim Goldsworthy of UNKLE.

Even if this album didn’t have so much support, that fact would be overshadowed by the fact that 3D and Daddy G are cool dudes and it’s good to hear them making music again. This fact is most apparent on the ending “Atlas Air,” which is succinctly a Massive Attack work, with its melodically jumpy synths and building production. It definitely sounds like Massive Attack, but that’s part of the problem. It doesn’t have the element of surprise in its composition or production work, nor does anything else on this album, and that kind of unpredictability is what makes their prior releases so thrilling. The fact of the matter is, nothing on this album is really “bad,” per se. It’s not the kind of album that you skip any tracks on, but simultaneously not an album that really gets you to sit up and take notice, even at its best moments.

The opening “Pray for Rain” is a perfect example of this sonic indifference. The dark piano melody and rolling drum hits are mysterious and unfortunately totally predictable. So is the build in the song, which would have worked well if Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals weren’t given possibly the pansiest vocal treatment yet in Massive’s canon. The same can be said of a lot of the other vocal spots on the album, which would have worked much better if given more volume or reverb. Often times, vocalists like Adebimpe and Damon Albarn sound like they are wailing in the shower instead of into an abyss like Horace Andy and Liz Fraser did on Mezzanine. The type of treatment these pieces are given makes for a result where there really are no highlights. It’s a smooth listen, and that’s just the problem.

Each song has its cool moments that are unfortunately hindered by flat production. Most of the songs, in fact, are actually written pretty well. “Girl I Love You” and “Splitting the Atom” are hypnotically heavy arrangements that could have had similar gravity to tracks on Mezzanine if they were produced right, but they fall far short of that brilliance. Tunde Adebimpe and Martina Topley Bird give good enough vocal parts on their songs, but their vocals are mostly far too bare, and when they aren’t they are cheaply doubled. A few highlights shine through the clouds, particularly Hope Sandoval’s performance on “Paradise Circus,” though the song still lacks the typical Massive sense of danger. “Girl I Love You” is another track with Horace Andy on vocals, and though it nearly rips off Radiohead with its atonal horn section near the end, it is still a gripping listen. These songs are unfortunately pretty lonely.

The deluxe issue of this album only further accentuates its problems, mostly because the remixes are quite good and show how the album tracks might have sounded with more energy and urgency. Once again, it’s not that the album tracks are bad really; we simply know that Massive Attack can write, sing, sound better. We’ve seen them do that enough times now to expect that from them, and thus Heligoland feels like an underwhelming compromise. It is completely feasible that Heligoland can draw in new fans for Massive Attack, but for their longtime listeners, it is sure to disappoint despite providing a few highlights, and it is Massive Attack’s worst album by a large margin.

Massive Attack

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Space Monkeyz vs. Gorillaz: Laika Come Home

October 7, 2008

In some ways, releasing Laika Come Home, a remix album consisting entirely of dub remixes of songs from the first Gorillaz album, was a good idea, because dub remixes very well might have appealed to the same market that the first Gorillaz album did. However, Laika Come Home was both peripheral and unnecessary. The intention was to make chilled out versions of the songs from the self titled album, but whoever made the executive decision to make Laika somehow forgot that Gorillaz was already a chilled out album, and the cutting edge of modern hip hop. So making a reggae remix album for it was both redundant and pointless. However, it seems apparent that the Spacemonkeyz have some kind of talent. Laika at the very least is quite well produced, and they write some fairly good hooks to accompany Damon Albarn’s work here. However, the album feels like less of a remix album so much as a dub album of its own that samples the Gorillaz every once in a while (and pretty poorly at that). Song selection is also rather scattered. Hard rockers M1A1 and Punk are chosen for the mix, the former simply a bad decision to remix and the latter having virtually no resemblance to the original whatsoever. Also, songs with obvious dub potential are ignored, Latin Simone and Dracula. Beyond these objective facts, Laika Come Home simply is not a fun listen. During a continuous play, the listener will likely either get bored, develop a strong desire to smoke a joint, or simply fall asleep. For that reason, this album will mostly only appeal to reggae fans, and mostly bore the rest of us. But despite these fundamental flaws, there are a few scattered treasures to be found here. Strictly Rubbadub and Crooked Dub are the obvious winners, and a couple other songs can be enjoyable if the listener is in the mood for this kind of thing