The undoubted success of Damon Albarn's cartoon combo (that's Gorillaz, not Blur, in case there's any ambiguity) continues to puzzle me how could 4.6 million happy punters world-wide have fallen for this stuff? Perhaps he's tapped into some kind of Generation X lackadaisical demographic for whom whining, petulant vocals, soggy beats and vague melodica riffs are ambrosia. Certainly "Gorillaz" is defocused enough to make Blur's last studio album, the lumbering, lopsided nu-prog of "13", sound like a collection of snappy pop songs.
There are, in its defence, a couple of good tracks. "Rock The House" barrels along on a ridiculously cheesy but terminally infectious Johnny Dankworth sample, propelled even further by Del Tha Funky Homosapien's lithe, limber rapping. "Slow Country" is a sly, tinkling charmer wherein the swing of a delicious piano riff just about outweighs the roundabout that is Albarn's half-arsed attempt at Jamaican patois. "M1 A1" is close to brilliant, possibly the best song Albarn has been involved with since "Parklife", snatches of film dialogue nicked from "Day Of The Dead" reversed into thrashing garageland riffage, it sounds like Colourbox gone punk.
But really, three out of sixteen isn't a fabulous result, the considerable remainder of the album being padded out with half-formed ideas, reheated scraps and curious guest appearances (former Talking Head Tina Weymouth squandered as a backing vocalist on "19-2000", Buena Vista Social Club alumnus Ibrahim Ferrer crooning through "Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo)"). There might be the germ of a good idea at the cardboard heart of the whole Gorillaz project, but despite its commercial success any potential it possesses appears to have been fairly well hidden.
GORILLAZ G Sides (EMI/Parlophone)
As its title slyly suggests, "G-Sides" is a collection of remixes and b-sides by Damon Albarn's cartoon side-project, collected primarily for the Japanese market. Surprisingly, it makes for a far tighter and more enjoyable listen than the Gorillaz album proper. Much of the flabby, wasted experimentation that makes that record so gruelling has been zapped, replaced by a trashy pop aesthetic that's rather more akin to the kind of music you might expect an animated beat combo to create - "Sugar Sugar" booted into outer space, perhaps.
Nowhere is this transformation more apparent than on the astounding remix of "19-2000": lost in the stoned, nonsensical fog of "Gorillaz", Soulchild grabs it by the scruff of its tune and shakes a glorious, big, dumb, fantastic, plastic, kindergarten pop song out of it, all primary colours and overloaded on E numbers. "Rock The House" makes a welcome reappearance, here in Radio Edit form (clearly you can't say 'ass' on the radio, to paraphrase Monty Python!). There are a smattering of interesting new songs as well: "Faust" is a brilliant addition to the canon, as chillingly Krautrockian as its title suggests, but warmed through with a seductive melody. It could be Kraftwerk at their circa-"The Man Machine" most almost-human. "Ghost Train" actually arrives a few minutes early for the electroclash revival, chugging pleasantly along on great borrowed dollops of The Human League's "The Sound Of The Crowd". The ghost of Muddy Waters is hollering somewhere deep inside "Left Hand Suzuki Method", a sort of hip hop cut 'n' paste square dance. And closing number "12D3" is slight but charming too, a lazy acoustic strumout from a lonesome 2D (a.k.a. Damon).
"G Sides" is still frustratingly imperfect: the Phi Life Cypher version of "Clint Eastwood" presented here lags some way behind the original, Albarn's vocal having been completely excised. And the Gorillaz album proper's finest moment, "M1 A1", is nowhere to be found here. Nevertheless, "G Sides" proves that the whole Gorillaz aesthetic is far more malleable than I had initially expected, and a second album with as much daring and innovation as is displayed on these ostensibly throwaway scraps could be a joy to behold.
SPACEMONKEYZ VERSUS GORILLAZ Laika Come Home (Parlophone)
Being the latest in a seemingly unstoppable torrent of Damon Albarn product, here Spacemonkeyz give last year's eponymous Gorillaz album a thorough dubbing up, to generally lacklustre effect. Categorically avoiding the virtues that made the Japanese compilation "G Sides" so delicious - including brevity and pop nous - instead "Laika Come Home" is rather like listening to "Gorillaz" underwater, at half speed, with the bass cranked up to 11. Its thrilling at first, with all those huge slabs of window-rattling low frequencies bouncing around the room, but rapidly becomes very dreary indeed.
How far the songs have travelled is evident in "Punk"'s transformation into "De-Punk", wherein brief, bratty thrash becomes the kind of smoky, generic reggae muzak that constitutes the bulk of this album. These remixed versions are effectively interchangeable, only distinguished by the occasional isolated outburst of a half-remembered riff. Spacemonkeyz reinvention of "Gorillaz" standout "M1 A1" as "Lil' Dub Chefin'" is pleasant enough, though, with guest vocalist Terry Hall demonstrating exactly where Albarn sourced his horizontal singing style. There are also a brace of untitled extra tracks (on the vinyl version, at least), which appear to be additional explorations of "Slow Country" and "Clint Eastwood", which is probably a bonus if you actually enjoy what Spacemonkeyz and Gorillaz achieve in combat.
But if you don't, "Laika Come Home" is a disappointingly limp experience. Racked up against the current world champion of indie-dub - Primal Scream's "Echo Dek", which succeeded in making a brilliant album ("Vanishing Point") even weirder - it's just an aimless wander.
GORILLAZ Demon Days (Parlophone)
One overexcitable broadsheet scribe has already proclaimed that if Demon Days repeats the six million sales of Gorillazs (I feel the rules of punctuation collapsing around me) eponymous debut itll be like Sgt. Pepper all over again. I wouldnt go quite that far, but compared to the stoned mumbling of its predecessor Demon Days is the work of a quite different virtual band. Perhaps some of this invigoration can be traced to the recruitment of mysterious producer Danger Mouse, responsible for the Grey Album bootleg, which mashed together appropriately-hued works by The Beatles and Jay-Z. Maybe it has something to do with Damon Albarns apparently renewed interest in and curiosity about songwriting excellence, as witnessed by the sharp upturn in the quality of Blurs output on Think Tank. Whatever the reason, its to be welcomed, because Demon Days is a conceptual cartoon masterpiece of an album.
Its also a bit like spending an hour listening to The Specials Ghost Town morphed into a computer game soundtrack, but that shouldnt detract from the fact that Demon Days contains some of Albarns finest singing yet: he sounds utterly wracked and devastated in places. Danger Mouse provides a doomy, precision-drilled electro-thunk, as blank, alienated and nihilistic as the characters that float through songs such as Kids With Guns. An ark of stellar talent contributes, but so all-enveloping is Demon Days sonic domain that you might not log the famous folk presence without some serious sleevenote scrutinising. And lets not even get to considering whether the four stark mugshots on the front cover are some kinda homage to The Beatles Let It Be.
With its titular Eno nod O Green World glistens with the fresh kill of Psycho string stabs, Albarns voice so empty it sounds utterly lost, a void. The deployment of a childrens choir (actually the San Fernandez Youth Chorus, 2003-2004 season) fails to prevent Dirty Harry from getting funky, yet its also exquisitely, delectably layered, like a black forest gateau. (As an aside, even the tiny slivers of television I watch tell me that this album is heading for an almost Moby-like ubiquity as the trailer soundtrack of choice.) El Mañana is Demon Days closest approach to Ghost Town, but its also more eloquently redolent of a harsh Northern winter than anything on Doves bombastic last album. The Ike Turner-assisted Every Planet We Reach Is Dead is one of many occasions on which Damon sounds more broken and mournful than on 13s big Justine breakup ballad No Distance Left To Run, and the suggestion presents itself that Demon Days might be a (relatively) colourful cartoon cousin to Massive Attacks unremitting Mezzanine. All Alone is a haunting, hunted, booming dub rattle, Roots Manuvas raps intertwining with ethereal interludes from former Tricky foil Martina Topley-Bird. Dare saluting the Human League album, perhaps suggests that Shaun Ryder is still capable of behaving as if he hasnt completely misplaced the plot when matched with sympathetic collaborators. The audaciousness ramps up to a maximum on Fire Coming Out Of A Monkeys Head, which, naturally, features Dennis Hopper reading an anti-globalisation fairy tale. Proceedings sway to a close with the unflinchingly honest gospel-reggae title track.
What Gorillaz always needed was an editor, someone to tighten up their natural inclination towards slackness and flabbiness thats why, at ten tightly constructed tracks the G-Sides b-sides compilation was a minor revelation and the dark thrum of the Laika Come Home wasnt. Freshly reanimated by Danger Mouse, Demon Days is the sound of latent potential being thrillingly, thoroughly realised.
Afel Bocoum Damon Albarn Toumani Diabaté And Friends