Thursday, October 06, 2005

Going ape!

Space Monkeys Vs Gorillaz: Laika Come Home (Astralwerks/Emd, 2002)
8/10 (by the authors)

Amazon Editorial
Sure, Gorillaz sounded original, but it was a pop project with all the constraints that went with it--can you imagine the six-minute remixed version of "Clint Eastwood" making it onto MTV? But that's exactly what makes Laika Come Home so good. It's a reimagined collection filled with bone-shaking dubscapes and enough reverb to transmit a message to the farthest edges of the universe. Listen to the "De-Punked" version of "Punk" with its meandering, decayed trumpet and computerized tweaks--hardly recognizable as the original--or the swinging old-school ska that crops ups on "5/4." The two-tone skank of "M1/A1" (with Terry Hall) sounds as if it should have been the original version, but the real killer tracks are those injected with dancehall vibes by DJ U Brown and Earl 16. Who says "you don't get paid for doing what you love?"--not Damon Albarn.
-Caroline Butler

Demon Days (Virgin, 2005)
8/10, 9/10 (by the authors)

This is an unapolagetically militant endorsement of the man behind the Gorillaz project, Damon Albarn. Justified because one can only understand the baffling beauty of Demon Days through a closer look at this hidden genius. Of course this is the work of more than one - DJ Danjermouse taking Dan the Automators place from the first album - but Albarn has always picked his collaborators well. See the excellent Mali Music where he gives local African musicians a beautiful warm space to delight us. Blur, his main band, was often credited to guitarist Graham Coxon. However Coxon left the band before their last album and Think Tank was, frankly, the better for it. Listening to Coxon's retro solo efforts one realises Albarn was the one responsible for the restless innovation and melodic instinct behind the band. Similarly he was the real architect of Mali Music's charm. Blur, Gorillaz and Mali music are utterly different but all have his distinctive stamp - lo-fi, lolloping, nihilistic, beautiful and utterly new. A chameleon of pop over the past 15 years but, unlike Bowie, one whose personality doesn't take centre stage, only his musical quest. It is because of this that he has been largely un-noticed. This modesty is perfectly exemplified in Gorillaz where he hides behind invented cartoon characters. Enough on his history, what about Demon Days? A good album, addictive - i found myself listening it back to back three times, furious there wasn't more of it. Smothered in production it ought to fail as style over substance usually does but Albarn's genius for melody lifts triumph from the trap of cool. Underneath there hides the archetypical verse-chorus verse structure. But how well he treats it. Take Kids with Guns - the bassline doesn't change throughout but each verse sounds totally new, approached from a different angle or instrument. And the choruses, as ever, shine. Lyrically and melodically his trick is to create a lost, sad, cool verse then break into the most beautiful, lazy and plaintive vocal for the chorus. Take Feel good inc with its featherweight bass breaking down in the echoing chorus. The lyrics make less sense than George Bush on acid - singing about 'windmills hand in hand' - but he deliberately abandoned his trademark narrative songs after the fourth Blur album, about the time he abandoned the guitar quartet stereotype. Cut loose he manages to evoke a familiar modern nihilism and abandonment of any conviction. 13, the Blur album recorded just after his breakup with Elastica singer Justine Frischman, should be listened to as the pinnacle of this senseless sense. Every song echoes with shattered love while he rambles
'Shooting stars in my left arm
It's an alcohol low
Giving away time to Casio
The sun is slow
and I've got soul.
Is this where I'm going to
we'll see, we see, we see'.
Songs like 'Every planet we reach is dead' and 'Don't get lost in Heaven' lead you through similar lost sadnesses, dragged like a monkey in a space suit.

This album might make you cry or dance or quietly think afresh. Buy it but, as you've probably guessed, buy any stuff this man produces. Albarn is the single living musical genius of my collection and I am grateful for every new thing he does. Hopefully you will find the same.

Demon Days is unified and purposeful in a way Albarn's music hasn't been since The Great Escape, possessing a cinematic scope and a narrative flow, as the curtain unveils to the ominous, morose "Last Living Souls" and then twists and winds through valleys, detours, and wrong paths -- some light, some teeming with dread -- before ending up at the haltingly hopeful title track. Along the way, cameos float in and out of the slipstream and Albarn relies on several familiar tricks: the Specials are a touchstone, brooding minor key melodies haunt the album, there are some singalong refrains, while a celebrity recites a lyric (this time, it's Dennis Hopper). Instead of sounding like musical crutches, this sounds like an artist who knows his strengths and uses them as an anchor so he can go off and explore new worlds. Chief among the strengths that Albarn relies upon is his ability to find collaborators who can articulate his ideas clearly and vividly. Danger Mouse, whose Grey Album mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z was an underground sensation in 2004, gives this music an elasticity and creeping darkness than infects even such purportedly lighthearted moments as "Feel Good Inc." It's a sense of menace that's reminiscent of prime Happy Mondays, so it shouldn't be a surprise that one of the highlights of Demon Days is Shaun Ryder's cameo on the tight, deceptively catchy "Dare." Over a tightly wound four minutes, "Dare" exploits Ryder's iconic Mancunian thug persona within territory that belongs to the Gorillaz -- its percolating beat not too far removed from "19/2000" -- and that's what makes it a perfect distillation of Demon Days: by letting other musicians take center stage and by sharing credit with Danger Mouse, Damon Albarn has created an allegedly anonymous platform whose genius ultimately and quite clearly belongs to him alone. All the themes and ideas on this album have antecedents in his previous work, but surrounded by new collaborators, he's able to present them in a fresh, exciting way. And he has created a monster album here -- not just in its size, but in its Frankenstein construction. It not only eclipses the first Gorillaz album, which in itself was a terrific record, but stands alongside the best Blur albums, providing a tonal touchstone for this decade the way Parklife did for the '90s. While it won't launch a phenomenon the way that 1994 classic did -- Albarn is too much a veteran artist for that and the music is too dark and weird -- Demon Days is still one hell of a comeback for Damon Albarn, who seemed perilously close to forever disappearing into his own ego.
-Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Note: Score ratings in bold are Select Reviews, and "( )" the authors cited.