By: Eric Greenwood
In his quest to avoid recording a new Blur album this year, Damon Albarn has been knocking off side-projects like he doesn’t have a real job. Gorillaz is Albarn’s latest incarnation, and it’s a rap/dub/punk/electronic collaboration with producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura (Dr. Octagon, Deltron 3030, Handsome Boy Modeling School), featuring Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads, Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Kid Koala, and Miho Hatori from Cibo Matto. The onslaught of all-star collective records has pretty much run its course (the suddenly ubiquitous Santana notwithstanding- just ask UNKLE and Prince who put the first few nails in the coffin), but Gorillaz does have something unique to offer the genre: good songs. Well, a few anyway.
Originally, Albarn’s involvement with Gorillaz was rumored to be minimal, but he seems to have killed the captain and taken over the ship, as his instantly recognizable cockney slur is the crux of almost every song. Dan "The Automator" backs Albarn's hooks with intentionally futuristic yet simplistic beats. There's a lazy, stoner's indifference to many of the songs. Albarn sounds almost giddy compared to the last few Blur albums, thankfully. Like the dilettante that he is, Albarn is content to get his feet just wet enough in a particular genre to pull off one song. But before you level Peter Gabriel or Sting-wannabe accusations at him- he has the wherewithal not to take himself too seriously. And his consistent tunefulness hammers home the fact that his long-lauded pop sensibility is indeed no fluke.
"Rehash" opens the cartoon band's debut with a sunny, carefree sing-along. Albarn and his acoustic guitar lead the way. To prevent anyone confusing this with a Blur song Dan "The Automator" peppers the scenery with heavy, dub-bass, wobbly beats, and a chorus of slick back-up singers. "5/4" is a surprisingly straightforward rocker- Albarn's bratty affectation driving the Wire-y guitars into a noisy, foot-stomping chorus. The dark, soporific beauty of "Tomorrow Comes Today" instantly recalls Blur's eponymous reinvention in 1997. Albarn's melodica melds perfectly with Nakamura's lethargic beats. On "New Genius (Brother)" Albarn successfully experiments with his upper register over top Nakamura's scratches and dusty record samples.
Fuelled by its fully animated video with characters designed by Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, "Clint Eastwood" is light-hearted, urban, futuristic fun. Del Tha Funky Homosapien's aggressive rant counter's Albarn's lackadaisical hook effectively, and Nakamura ensures everything retains its dark tinge with a soundscape resembling a hip-hop clash with a circus sideshow. Even on throwaways like "Punk" where Albarn turns up the cockney drawl to an obnoxious degree, there's still a freshness and a spark as well as an (un)intentional resemblance to Elastica. Albarn's slumberous falsetto careens gorgeously over Nakamura's orchestral "Sound Check (Gravity)"- a rumbling hip-hop dirge.
Because of its dilettantism and shallow experimentation Gorillaz rarely outstays its welcome. It's an unpretentious diversion for Albarn- an easy way out of recording a solo album, for one, as well as a chance to purge himself of any zany ideas he might inflict upon Blur. From the cartoon concept to the playful atmosphere, Gorillaz succeeds primarily because of its solid songs. Even after all the hype dies down, many of these songs will hold their own. Of course, there are a few cringe-worthy moments when the genre crossbreeding is awkward and strained, but these indulgences are easily forgiven. This is an eclectic pop record. Frivolous, yes, but full of melody and attitude.