'Toon In: Gorillaz Animate the Music Scene
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Like Josie and the Pussycats with smoker's cough, juvie-hall attitude and an eclectic record collection, the U.K.'s Gorillaz are a cartoon band that battles baddies when not making music. Really offbeat music: Brit-pop hooking up with hip-hop, reggae messing with rock, and all manner of whirly, swirly effects in between. On the animated group's self-titled debut, one of the surprise gone-platinum hits of 2001, the vaguely simian, possibly supernatural punks fought surly space apes -- well, at least that's what it looked like in the liner notes, videos and Web site (Gorillaz.com) -- and chilled out with trippy, loungy songs.
On the Gorillaz' mesmerizing new "Demon Days," singer-keyboardist 2D, bassist Murdoc, drummer Russel and 10-year-old guitarist Noodle go head-to-head with flesh-snacking zombies. (To be honest, the music and the artwork are far more interesting than any semblance of back story, so don't worry about coming in late.) The album commences with a creepy soundtrack sample from "Dawn of the Dead," then segues into the apocalyptically trancy "Last Living Souls," a not-so-veiled commentary on the real world's war-torn ways. That said, anyone who's heard the sublime "Feel Good Inc.," already a hit thanks to its place in an iPod ad, knows that this time around the Gorillaz can throw a funky upbeat party, too.
Sold as the first virtual hip-hop group, Gorillaz are the brainchild of Blur frontman Damon Albarn, one of Brit-pop's cockiest progenitors, and cartoonist J.C. Hewlett, whose most popular comic is the cult favorite "Tank Girl." Producer Dan "the Automator" Nakamura, Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori and former Talking Heads Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz were also involved, all bringing a puckish art-school vibe to an out-there project with surprising commercial appeal. Heck, even Ibrahim Ferrer, of "Buena Vista Social Club" fame, showed up for the fun.
The most important new (human) face in the Gorillaz is DJ Danger Mouse, who replaces Nakamura as the main producer. Father of the music-mixing art form known as "mash-ups" -- the blending of two separate songs into one -- the L.A. turntablist caused an underground hubbub when he mixed the Beatles' "White Album" with Jay-Z's "Black Album," making, naturally, "The Grey Album." The Gorillaz are his biggest aboveground gig to date, and Albarn and Danger Mouse turn out to be an ideal team: Two free-thinkers with eccentric musical ideas who also know the importance of a pop hook. Whereas the first Gorillaz album soothed you into somnolence, "Demon Days" is packed with more edge, more oomph, more catchy tricks around every unexpected corner.
Some of the best new songs feature the weirdest cameo turns. Special guests include madcap rappers De La Soul (they add a feverish rhyme on "Feel Good Inc."), the infamous Ike Turner (playing a menacing piano line on the soul-jazz groove "Every Planet We Reach Is Dead") and the quite possibly insane Dennis Hopper (he narrates the bizarro story-song "Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head").
Four years ago, the Gorillaz' breakout hit was the head-nodding slacker special "Clint Eastwood" ("I ain't happy, I'm feelin' glad / I got sunshine, in a bag"). On "Demon Days," the former mayor of Carmel, Calif., is once again referenced, this time on "Dirty Harry," the album's most inventive cut and a mind-blowing representation of the two-headed monster that is Albarn and Danger Mouse. On top of a Stevie Wonderesque keyboard line and an old-school beat from the Afrika Bambaataa School of Hip-Hop Coolness, the Gorillaz add Albarn's Brit-poppy yearning, then the San Fernandez Youth Chorus, a classical string section, a screaming baby and, out of nowhere and to startling effect, Pharcyde rapper Bootie Brown. It should be a mess, but it's not. And that's just like the Gorillaz: The 'toons are good, but the tunes are even better.