Gorillaz: Plastic Beach

RIYL: Blur, mid-period OMD, Saturday morning cartoons

Damon Albarn is surely still scratching his head over the fact that he had to hide behind a crudely drawn character in order to sell a million records in the US, while the humanoid version of Albarn remains a cult act, be it with Blur or the Good, the Bad & the Queen, his project with the Clash’s Paul Simonon. Give him credit, then, for not capitalizing on this loophole by turning the Gorillaz into a Hannah Montana-style media juggernaut, churning out an album, plush doll, video game and TV show every 18 months. God knows, it must have been tempting. Sell millions of records, or don’t sell millions of records? Credibility is nice, but as David Cross pointed out, those outside the industry are stingy about accepting it as collateral.


Indeed, it’s been five years since Albarn has donned the ink and paper, and if the Gorillaz’ new album Plastic Beach is any indication, the anger that fueled 2005’s Demon Days has subsided. Unfortunately, Albarn’s energy level seems to have subsided as well. The album doesn’t shift gears much, opting for mid-tempo grooves that you’d expect from a Jack Johnson or a G. Love. “On Melancholy Hill” sounds like OMD circa The Pacific Age. This is not your older brother’s Gorillaz, though that’s not entirely a bad thing. The album may be completely lacking in bottom end – you’d have to go back 30 years to find tinnier drum tracks – but Albarn is still good for one unforgettable single, in this case the “Safety Dance”-ish “Stylo,” featuring a passionate vocal from Bobby Womack. De La Soul return to guest on the cutesy “Superfast Jellyfish,” and “To Binge,” a perky duet with Little Dragon, is one of the best pop songs Albarn’s written in years. He gets a bit carried away with the guest performers, though. Did he need Mos Def and Bobby Womack and De La Soul and Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed and Snoop Dogg and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon? (And that’s not even all of the guest performers.) Albarn ultimately minimizes his contributions to his own album.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect about Plastic Beach is its warmth, or lack thereof. This is one cold album, and perhaps that was Albarn’s point. If so, mission accomplished, but it could come at a huge price. His band is already artificial; when the music begins to feel the same way, discontent is sure to follow. There is much to admire about Plastic Beach, but it’s also one of the most emotionless albums you’ll hear this year. (Virgin 2010)

Gorillaz MySpace page
Click to buy Plastic Beach from Amazon


Massive Attack: Heligoland

RIYL: The Specials’ “Ghost Town,” Radiohead’s In Rainbows, film noir soundtracks

If you read enough reviews of Heligoland (spoken as ‘Hell Ego Land’), Massive Attack’s new album and first in seven years, you’ll eventually be able to play Bingo with them. At some point, the phrases “dark,” “brooding,” “trip-hop,” “atmospheric,” and “guest vocals” will pop up in the majority of them, and as overused as those expressions are, they fit. Of course, the other reason many reviews will say these things – again – is because, well, what else is there to say about Massive Attack? They have carved such a unique niche for themselves that talking about their music is akin to dancing about architecture. Some bands just are. Massive Attack is one of them. It’s a sweet place to be if you can swing it, but it makes objective analysis of their music almost impossible.


Up to this point, however, no one has ever needed to write “twelve years removed from their last good album” when discussing Massive, but that is exactly where the band finds itself; you have to go back to last century’s Mezzanine (‘last century’ is a trick writers use for dramatic effect) to find their last consistent piece of work, so the band needs this one to stick. And for the most part, it does, certainly when compared to the 2003’s hazy 100th Window; with a more focused approach on songwriting rather than groovemaking, Heligoland plays like Radiohead’s In Rainbows if they had gone the Santana route and recruited a slew of guest vocalists. (Bingo!) Longtime friend Horace Andy sings on the odd “Girl I Love You,” which begins in the vein of “Angel” but ends with a horn section jazz-out not unlike Radiohead’s “The National Anthem,” and the skittery “Babel” is like “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” done as a drum ‘n bass track. That’s a good thing, in case you were wondering.

Massive’s achilles, however, has always been their tendency to stay in a groove until it becomes a rut, and Heligoland is no exception. There is a lot to admire about the album, but it’s difficult to love; for as much time as they spend exploring dark themes both musically and lyrically, it’s lacking in emotional impact, and not even Damon Albarn can save the album’s final third from coasting to the finish line. Still, bringing the band back to a duo (100th Window was basically a solo project by Robert “3D” Del Naja) was a step in the right direction, but now that they’ve made two albums without Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles, it’s evident that present day Massive Attack is much like Think Tank-era Blur without Graham Coxon. The band still exists, but things will never be what they once were. It is now up to us to accept this and hope for the best going forward. (Virgin 2010)

Massive Attack MySpace page
Click to buy Heligoland from Amazon


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