Sunday, March 28, 2010

Some Kind Of Mixture

From: Noah

i really like some of it is great!...cuz ive never heard anything like it...but yea i dont really like the songs where albarn just wails to sad music


Monday, Mar 22 5:34 PM

Having just clipped twenty cat toenails, I was unhappy about everything, and not thinking about the end of M.A.R.C.H. A surprise text from my younger brother, on the topic of the new Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, and the ensuing e-conversation, brightened my mood considerably.

Noah and I share certain tastes in music: we both like the Wu-Tang Clan and White Stripes, for instance. But more often than not, our tastes diverge, even on artists with a lot in common: Noah loves Esham's KKKill The Fetus, whereas I much prefer Dr. Octagonecologyst. But his grossly misspelled texts got me to thinking, and I decided to close out the month with a track-by-track look--this blog's sixth!--at Plastic Beach. I invite Rockaliser's Damon Albarn expert, and anyone else with an opinion, to weigh in in the comments section about the album, which I just saw for sale at Whole Foods.

1. Orchestral Intro (feat. Sinfonia ViVA)
Something that sounds a lot like a film score, performed by a real orchestra. The mood is forlorn, and the wave-crashing introduces a nautical theme that will continue to confuse, but at barley a minute, there's not much to discuss here.

2. Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach (feat. Snoop Dogg and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
Commencing with an 8-horn pile-up, and then a pulsating synth sound that plays for most of the song. The structure seems unusual--Snoop comes in and drops a single line, waits while the song stokes itself into a neon frenzy, and returns a minute later. The production is fantastic, with elements constantly coming in and out of the mix, but a consistent, deeply digital funkiness. Damon Albarn could make a career as an avant-rap producer, if this song is any indication. But I can't say enough about the Boss Dogg's performance. As always, he's preternaturally calm, but he owns this beat, and his sparse, free-associative lines make his presence less incongruous. Probably the best thing Snoop's done since 2007, if not 2004. Since I enjoy rating things, I will give this song a 5/5.

3. White Flag (feat. Kano, Bashy, & The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music)
Another orchestra, another shanty (though not shabby) intro. The LNOfOAM do their thing for about a minute, and then a colorful SNES beat takes over. The manic bloops never achieve a coherent flow, and while Brit rappers Kano and Bashy team-tag respectably, they sound a bit lost. Eventually the strings come back, this time with the beat, but "White Flag" pales compared to what came before it. 3/5

4. Rhinestone Eyes
Presumably what Noah meant by "wails to sad music." The first time we've heard Albarn's untreated voice (he's in "Plastic Beach" very briefly). Damon must own closets of vintage synths, and on this song he'll have four or so going at once. The song picks up power and some menacing vibes as it progresses, with tension building between his monochrome intonations and the dark sounds that surround him. 4/5

5. Stylo (feat. Bobby Womack and Mos Def)
"Rhinestone Eyes," as it turns out, is fodder for the truly apocalyptic "Stylo." An unforgiving bass pattern dominates this song, and while the vocal performances are secondary, they all succeed in different ways. Mos Def, who's beadth of musical interests rival Albarn's, is a natural collaborator, and his fuzzy raps are as blunt as the bass. Womack is the more interesting choice, and his powerful, throaty words are nearly as intense as the notes which threaten to engulf him. Albarn sings about overloads, but the bass here dominates in every way, sounding like a reccord put on repeat shortly before the apocalypse, still playing in the absence of anyone to hear it. 4/5

6. Superfast Jellyfish (feat. Gruff Rhys and De La Soul)
There's absolutely no reason a transition from "Stylo" to the jokey "Superfast Jellyfish" should work, but the humor and art-jingle angle work wonders. A song with more of the spirit of Three Feet High And Rising than most of what De La have done since--I could hardly give a higher compliment. Any track with the line "All hail king Neptune and his water breathers/No snail thing too quick for his water feeders" rules in my book. 4.5/5

7. Empire Ants (feat. Little Dragon)
This song also starts out as a sad-music-wail number, and Albarn sounds genuinely weary in the song's first half. The song transforms into a glacier-cool dance number halfway through, with Little Dragon vocalist Yukimi Nagano providing a nice foil to Dame. Little separates her voice from Albarn's, in fact, aside from the fact that she's a woman and slightly more emphatic in her phrasing, but the slight differences make for a Janus-faced song, each half gaining something from the other. 4.5/5

8. Glitter Freeze (feat. Mark E Smith)
Eternal curmudgeon Mark E Smith--one of the most surprising cameos--blathers to introduce this one. This song, too, goes the synthy endtimes route, and lord knows it has a great title, but there's nothing of interest going on. Mark utters maybe 10 words, but "Glitter Freeze" sounds like it could soundtrack a montage in a robot anime. 1.5/5

9. Some Kind Of Nature (feat. Lou Reed)
Lou Reed gives the absolute shabbiest performance I've ever herad--in stark contrast to a backing chorus of Albarns--but there's something fantastic going on here. I hear a distinct echo of the Velvets in the jaunty piano, but it's transported into Albarn's version of the present, with a punchy drum machine, several supporting synthesizers, and chopped and screwed Lou vocals. Simple pleasures, to be sure, but lovely ones. 4.5/5

10. On Melancholy Hill
"definatly one of the best," wrote Noah, and I don't disagree. I'm not the first person to note similarities to "Waterloo Sunset"--one of rock's perfect songs, and a favorite of Albarn's--and a shared wistfulness is undeniable. Yet I hear more in common with "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)." Like that Talking Heads classic, "Melancholy Hill" thrives on simplicity: nothing more than a handful of well-placed notes and the momentum to last four minutes. Unlike the antisocial "Waterloo Sunset," these are love songs, confused ones, maybe, but songs whose stories are told not just in their lyrics, but their joyful melodies. 5/5

11. Broken
Noah's criticism becomes more relevant with the slow "Broken." The wall of synths--including one that sounds like a coyote's whistle--and Albarn's eternally subdued vocals aren't thrilling, but the pieces all fit, and at least Damon isn't wailing about his personal problems. 3/5

12. Sweepstakes (feat. Mos Def & Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
I don't care for this song, and I listened to Tru3 Magic all the way through. The problem isn't Mos Def's performance, but the radio transmitter bleeps that mar the entire song. Things pick up slightly when the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble join in, but I can't help but note that the soulless surroundings drain all traces of Mos' West Indian inflection. I also have no idea what this song is about, moreso than most of the rest. 2.5/5

13. Plastic Beach (feat. Mick Jones & Paul Simonon)
A mean spaghetti Western guitar introduces...a reunion of most of the living Clash?!? It doesn't sound particularly like a Clash song, nor a Morricone one. It does sound glitchy. I hear a bit of island music in the bass, so perhaps Simonon does insinuate his old band in there. 3.5/5

14. To Binge (feat. Little Dragon)
Plastic Beach's nautical-themed songs--and I think this is one--all remind me in a way of Wind Waker--they're out to sea and cartoony, even when melancholy. And they don't particularly sound like the work of a cartoon band. "To Binge" bounces along, somewhat glumly; Albarn outdoes Nagano this time. 3/5

15. Cloud Of Unknowing (feat. Bobby Womack & Sinfonia ViVA)
A short, atmospheric number, with a beautiful performance by Womack, who sounds wizened in that way only an old soul singer can. No percussion, just instruments that hover and give Womack his footing. 4/5

16. Pirate Jet
Wobbly synth, bouncing bloops, stomping synth, multitracked vocals--there's a lot happening on this insistent, dire, and intriguing closer. It all works, and yet at 2:30, the song feels far too short. It leaves you wanting more, but not in a good way. 4/5


  1. I agree with virtually all of your track reviews but I have to say I disagree with Noah: I found the most compelling individual moments of the album to be Albarn's "wailing to sad music" (then again, my favorite Blur album is 13, so that probably says a lot about me).

    But yes, I agre that this album is quite strong, and a lot of the guests are great, particularly Reed, Little Dragon, Dogg, Bobby Womack, Mos Def and album MVP (for the second time!) De La Soul. I'm inclined to be a little kinder toward "Sweepstakes," which I think features some of Mos Def's best stuff, and I can get into the repetitive bloops of "Glitter Freeze" even if Mark E. Smith's non-presence was a disappointment (I suppose we were all expecting him to be Shaun Ryder).

    There are some disappointments: I don't hear any guitar after the 30-second mark on "Plastic Beach," which is sad given that Mick Jones isn't given a lot to do these days (and he obviously doesn't have Simonon's rapport).

    My second-favorite would have to be "Superfast Jellyfish," which is just wall-to-wall quotable but you're right, "All hail King Neptune and his water breathers" is the phrase to beat in 2010.

    Judging from the surprising amount of 5 and 4.5-level songs, I'd wager that we have an early contender for album of 2010. And, in "Melancholy Hill," an early contender for best song. And I would like to point out that I was absolutely right in predicting this album would be awesome.

  2. Just want to say that the track-by-track album reviews are my favorite recurring feature on this blog. Please keep them coming.