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I just had to look through last month’s issue of Spin to dig up accurate lyrics for the chorus to Gorillaz’s “5/4,” which I’d been singing incorrectly for several hours. It’s not “She turned my data”; it’s “she turned my dad on.” But I wasn’t that far off, especially when you consider that head simian Damon Albarn often seems less willing to enunciate than Thom Yorke.
It’s late afternoon, Gorillaz is playing on my stereo for what must be the seventh or eighth time in two days (not to mention a spin around the park in the Walkman)…and I’m doing research. Not that it’s helping much: The interview I found with Albarn on the Internet wasn’t very revealing about the singer’s new projectjust a lot of yapping about Blur’s legacy to Britpop, not Albarn’s foray into triphop. I guess I’m just trying to find some reason why I can’t get enough of this record, despite the fact that it was co-authored by that odious purveyor of trippy-dippy, bullshit concept albums, producer Dan the Automator. That’s the problem with scapegoats: Once you’ve safely pinned all your frustration on them, they turn around and bite you on the ass.
Gorillaz are Albarn, Dan, and a few guests pretending to be cutesy cartoon characters who drive around in either a military Jeep or a Winnebago doing who knows what. (Sorry, I haven’t had time to watch the enhanced CD.) The truth is, the anime has little to do with the actual animal, a quick-moving musical monster powered by Dan’s triphop muscle andthank Godguided by Albarn’s sometimes indecipherable but always endearing songcraft.
The Automator first wormed his way into the hearts of indie-rap fans and sympathetic music journalists with what seemed like a harmless act at the time. He aided old-school rapper Kool Keith’s descent into insanity and subsequent creative rebirth by producing Keith’s 1996 Dr. Octagon project, Octagonecologyst. The album got raves from just about everyone and Keith the madman moved mad units overseas. Of course, Keith now resents his categorization as a weird guy, considering the trend of spooky, self-conscious rap that Octagonecologyst begat to be oh-so-regrettable. Nevertheless, Dan rode the wave, hooking up with De La Soul’s quirky former producer Prince Paul after A Prince Among Thieves, Paul’s own ambitious concept album, failed to awaken hiphoppers to the possibilities of album-length narrative early in 1999. The resulting Paul/Dan collab, Handsome Boy Modeling School’s So…Where’s Your Girl?, was critically and commercially successful despite being annoyingly uneven. More recently, Dan collaborated with Del tha formerly Funkee Homosapien on Deltron 3030, a musical Blade Runner retread that was twice as dreary as its source material and infinitely less engaging. But Deltron put Del’s name back in the mouths of the masses.
So Dan has helped a few hiphop has-beens find an audience in their twilight years. Not much harm in that, I guess. But for a rap artist, allying with the Automator means abandoning your former context, as if innovation didn’t have a place in hiphop proper, as if a conceptual hiphop album only made sense in the world of “alternative rap”and then only when hipster guests such as Sean Lennon and Miho Hatori were on hand to lend you their indie cred. Fortunately for Albarn, he’s not a rapper. Virgin may be pushing Gorillaz on college hiphop radiothe first single, “Clint Eastwood,” is one of only two songs on the disc prominently featuring Del’s rapping “Russel” characterbut the reality is that Del and Dan are here for the grace of Damon, not the other way around.
Firmly in charge, Albarn leads his rebel alliance in a slew of songs that seem to be more about the sound of his voice than anything else. With so many irresistible hooks and pure vocal viscera, though, that’s not a bad thing. The album opens up in an ugly way when a jangling guitar riff runs aground on Dan’s jagged low end and Albarn and guest (what do you know?) Hatori attempt to sort out the mess with a heavily reverbed, completely indecipherable chorus. The result is a languid, drugged-up singalong appropriately titled “Re-Hash.” Much more successful is “New Genious (Brother),” on which Dan sinks even further into an eerie backdrop of lonely harmonica and ominous, storm-front bass while Albarn howls into the wind, “Don’t trust people you meet/They might promise you that the river ain’t deep.”
Gorillaz score aplenty with that tried-and-true triphop fallback formula: slow and haunting. Dan filters the bass lines, keeps the treble either screaming or moaning, and pitch-shifts the drums until they sound like doors slamming in a creaky old mansion. Meanwhile, Albarn strains his voice through the plaintive, low-freq murk of “Starshine” and over the abrasive bass-and-scratching foundation of “Sound Check (Gravity),” which features frequent Automator sidekick Kid Koala on the turntables. By the time he gets to the album’s dub-tacular penultimate track, “Dracula,” Albarn seems resolved to a fate worse than death. “Everybody, party time,” he sings in a distant, exhausted echo, “and some of us will never sleep again.”
The fresh air comes in, however, when the crew stops sulking. Brightness has never been the Automator’s forte, but the electro-stomp behind “Man Research (Clapper)” is as much like dancing with a pinball machine as anyone could imagine. A pulsing, Moog-ish bass line drives the cut over synthetic bells and swirls while Albarn ya-ya-yahs like an orgasmic hyena. But of all Gorillaz’s 17 tracks, “19-2000” most evokes the album-cover cartoons, with Hatori reappearing to sing the candy-coated hook, “Get the cool, get the cool shoeshine,” over bouncy warps and bleeps. “Slow Country” follows suit, with keys right out of Schroeder’s toy piano and a cheerful synth line that sounds like Kraftwerk on Ecstasy. Albarn moans, “Can’t stand the loneliness,” but in this context it’s just another great lyric that doesn’t make any sense. On “Rock the House,” the mike is passed to Del, who demonstrates what it’s like when music geeks decide to party: “I got the balls ta/Rock the salsa/Funk or blues or/Any groove ta/Make ya move cuz/Takin’ you ta/Another landscape/Is my mandate.” Dan hangs back, punctuating the old-schoolish breakbeat with fun, well-placed horn flourishes while Del masters the ceremony. An excellent delegation of responsibility by Albarn.
Albarn makes such judicious appointments throughout Gorillaz, sometimes even opting to ditch his cohorts and just rock out, as on the stop-start guitar rave “Punk” and the raucous, rudimentary bass riff that is “M1 A1.” Don’t get me wrong: Albarn knows how to share, but his confident presence evens out this project, even when he steps completely out of the way for the Automator to duet with Buena Vista Social Club alum Ibrahim Ferrer on “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo).” And as long as there’s no Handsome Boy Social Club coming in the near future, that’s fine by me. CP