Music review of Gorillaz's 'Plastic Beach'

Hip-pop ahoy!
Hip-pop ahoy! "Plastic Beach" is the latest, but not greatest, offering from the eclectic collective launched by Damon Albarn. (Jamie Hewlett/emi Music)
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By Allison Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Imagine mysterious British street artist Banksy fronting the Banana Splits and you'll pretty much get the point of Gorillaz, the virtual side project of occasional Blur frontman Damon Albarn. A shape-shifting, multi-platinum hip-pop collective that uses cartoon stand-ins in videos and onstage, Gorillaz tends to make the same album over and over: futuristic minglings of hip-hop, electro, pop and reggae featuring the same micro-preoccupations (Hollywood action stars, R&B old-timers, De La Soul, Africa, the end times), played out against different scenery.

"Plastic Beach," the band's fine, if occasionally unfocused, third release, is an environmental concept album prompted by the time Albarn went to a landfill in Africa. Perhaps realizing that the only thing more shudder-inducing than a concept album is an environmental concept album prompted by the time the lead singer went to a landfill in Africa, Albarn and company don't belabor the point.

Their main concession to theme is "Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach," the disc's opening track (unless you count the orchestral intro, "Orchestral Intro"), a sleepy, Snoop Dogg-led number with a let's-not-hurt-the-planet-kids message and a "Planet of the Apes" shout-out.

Gorillaz discs live or die on the strength of their supporting players, and on "Plastic Beach," Albarn has chosen well. Among the pinch hitters: Bobby Womack takes over the Random Grizzled Soul Vet slot from Ike Turner on the space-disco gem "Stylo," a collaboration with Mos Def; De La Soul take over the, uh, De La Soul slot on the breezy "Superfast Jellyfish," a collaboration with Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys that seems to be an indictment of conspicuous consumerism, environmental waste and . . . bunnies (though it's so cloaked in metaphor, it's hard to tell).

Elsewhere, former Clash members Mick Jones and Paul Simonon reunite on the wobbly title track, reminiscent of a '50s sci-fi score, the Fall's Mark E. Smith guests on the chugging electro sugar rush "Glitter Freeze" and Lou Reed takes over the Dennis Hopper Scary Archetypal Hipster slot on the jaunty "Some Kind of Nature."

The great and strange "White Flag" is a flute-heavy war-and-religion takedown featuring appearances from British grime artists Kano and Bashy as well as a Lebanese orchestra. It's one of several tracks on which Albarn (in the form of his Gorillaz alter ego 2D) hardly seems to show up at all, contributing to the impression that "Plastic Beach" is a very well-made compilation album on which Gorillaz makes occasional appearances.

"Plastic Beach" is the group's first disc not to feature an outside producer (their first two releases, "Gorillaz" and "Demon Days," were co-helmed by Dan the Automator and Danger Mouse, respectively), and not coincidentally it's the first to feel less like a cohesive collection of songs and more like a scattershot inventory of the contents of Albarn's iPod.

Albarn, once the Britpop equivalent of a less embarrassing Billy Corgan, has never seemed concerned about the perils of too much-ness. But "Plastic Beach," long and synth-crazy and diffuse, can be a slog, a potentially great album suffering from an excess of everything.

Stewart is a freelance writer.

Recommended tracks:

"Stylo," "Superfast Jellyfish," "White Flag"

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