Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Album Review: Demon Days by Gorillaz

When the Gorillaz first hit MTV in 2001 it was a revelation. The music video, tinged with elements of anime and horror films, was dazzling and stylish. Damon Albarn's trippy Beck-like vocals was a perfectly bizzare compliment to the rump-moving super-annunciated rapping of Del the Funky Homosapien. Later I learned that the characters in the video weren't just a gimmick for a real-live band. They were the band. Blur front-man Damon Albarn did much of the music, along with various rappers and producers. But all the promotion, videos, and even tours would be solely about the quartet of strange musicians designed by comic book artist Jamie Hewlett (the creator of the comic series "Tank Girl"). The lead singer is a bedraggled Brit named 2-D who looks no more than two weeks out of rehab. The guitar player is Noodle, a diminuitive Japanese girl. The bass player is a sinister-looking bloke named Murdock. And the drummer is a gi-normous black gentleman named Russel. Each of their designs are savagely stylish and just beg to be plastered across dorm room walls.

The whole package had me completely sold. After listening to their self-titled first album however, I found myself disappointed. Only one other song had a rapper, and without that punch, the rest of the songs were a bit plodding and flat.

A few weeks ago, Apple started running a new Ipod commercial with a Gorillaz song from their new album, "Demon Days". I really dug it, so I checked out the whole album on Rhapsody. For the first two songs I was worried it would be more of the same. It sounded like Albarn just dicking around in the studio. The first full song, Last Living Souls had Albarn doing Bob Dylan-ish vocals over an Atari video-game-sounding drum beat. There was a Coldplay-ish interlude in the track that sounded promising. But the song soon went back to sounding rinky-dinky, and never had any rapping. The next track "Kids With Guns" had me getting really tired of Albarn's voice, just as did most of the previous album. But with the third track "O Green World" the album finally kicked into gear. It was this song where I finally heard the influence of the new producer Danger Mouse, who made waves a while back by mixing the Beatles' "White Album" with Jay-Z's "Black Album" to make his own "Grey Album". "O Green World" is a kick-ass collage of eclectic melodic and rhythmic lines underneath Albarn's interestingly distorted voice. Danger Mouse's sample-heavy style fit perfectly with the Gorillaz. And the album just got better from there. "Dirty Harry" started with a joyful mix of wah guitar, funk bass, Albarn's doubled-up voice, and a children's choir (believe me, it works). Then half-way through, rapper Bootie Brown crashed into the track elevating the song to cross-over greatness. The next song was the hit single "Feel Good, Inc." I watched the video for it online, and it was every bit as draw-dropping as their first video. The video alternates between a sweat drenched dance club and a pure blue sky traversed by a Miyazaki-style floating island. In this song, Albarn sounds particularly Beck-like and it totally works. And the maniacally laughing veteran rappers De La Soul added the same kind of jolt to the song that Del did to "Clint Eastwood". "El Manana" focused on Albarn's voice, but it didn't grow wearisome at all this time, because it had a break in it throughout the song that sounded really mournful and nice. "Every Planet We Reach Is Dead", as well as having an incredibly intriguing title, alternated between an aggressive wah guitar lick and a dreamy melody. This interplay really worked. At the end the instrumentals descended into chaotic guitar noise before smoothing out into a jazzy piano figure: pure headphone joy. "November Has Come" featured rapper MF Doom whose grimy sound was a neat change-up. "All Alone" gave the mic to rapper Roots Manuva. This track was fascinating because it was so rhythmically fluid. And it had an angelic vocal interlude by Martina Topley-Bird. "White Light" was fun little dance-punk ditty: not too much to it, though. Then out of nowhere, the Gorillaz achieve pure pop majesty with my favorite song on the album, "Dare". This song was like a cross between Abba and Prince, with all the infectiousness that implies. Albarn's falsettos, backup singer Rosie Wilson's silky voice, and Shaun Ryder's rapping made an oddly perfect blend that will hopefully tear up the charts when (as rumor has it) it will be released as a single in August. The last three tracks transitioned into each other like a mini- rock opera. It started with "Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head", a creepy-cool fable told by Dennis Hopper, the king of creepy-cool. The sing-song "Don't Get Lost In Heaven" introduced a gospel choir, which really started belting in the final track "Demon Days".

In the album "Demon Days", Damon Albarn, Danger Mouse, and their collaborators have produced a masterpiece of myriad styles and sonic experimentation. The Gorillaz mix some of the best elements of hip-hop, funk, dance-pop, gospel, and folk-rock. And while other musicians seem to think the mere novelty of mixing styles is enough, the talents behind the Gorillaz have clearly treated the practice as an exercise in artistry.

For more Gorillaz goodness, check out the interview-made-in-heaven in this month's Wired with Neil Gaiman (yes, that Neil Gaiman) and Gorillaz creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett.


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