26 January 2007

The Good, The Bad & The Queen

Damon Albarn has done it again. He is commonly described by the press as Britpop's most significant surviver - after huge success with Blur his work with Gorillaz ensured that his name lived on where others have fallen by the wayside. After deciding to end the Gorillaz project in the wake of Demon Days, and following the Mali Music project, his latest work hit the shops on Tuesday. Albarn teamed up with some high-profile colleagues - Tony Allen, Paul Simonon and Simon Tong along with Gorillaz producer Danger Mouse - and The Good, The Bad & The Queen is the result. The album has been hotly anticipated as the group has been in the public consciousness since October 2006 and the BBC Electric Proms and indeed that was when my interest was piqued. I enjoyed the catalogue produced by Gorillaz and, whilst Blur were not my cup of tea (at least at the time; I've warmed to some of their stuff since) I have long held Damon Albarn in high regard.

Financially I should never have bought the album this week nor would I have done, but for having to order my brother a birthday present: a second purchase was needed to get free shipping and the opportunity was too much to pass up. Music has long appealed to my baser nature and in many ways it is my chief vice - certainly it is my most expensive hobby - and so the album arrived through my mailbox this morning. It's currently getting its third and fourth plays as I type these thoughts.

Overall, this is an album with a dark yet engaging tone. At times both very simple and yet with rich depth and several audible layers it never feels over-complicated, self reverential or beholden to the back-catalogues of those involved. Its melodies, beats and harmonies all strike the listener as deliberate, precise and exactly appropriate: this is music crafted by true artisans. Albarn's voice lends itself perfectly to this type of project too - at times cracked and dry, others warm and engaging, or soft, or distant but always sounding smoke-y, dusky and unique. It shares the properties of the music and lyrics it conveys. What strikes me though is that while the overall tone is fairly dark, the album ends with an uplifting feeling: perhaps it is not as dark as all that. There is fun and funk in the eponymous closing track with its long, upbeat lead out and once you've heard the whole work once you begin to hear similar nuances in the other eleven tracks when you revisit them.

The album opens with an (semi-)acoustic guitar riff and a dark and vaguely threatening tone but one that demands aural attention. History song is a bit of a hotch-potch, an introductory piece, showcasing some of what is to come. When 80's Life kicks in it has a brighter sound, cleaner and lighter with harmonies that remind me a touch of some of Angelo Badalamenti's score to Twin Peaks; the vocals come across somewhat darker and the contrast holds the attention with a pervading sense of wistfulness. The third track, Northern Whale, mixes sporadic electronica with some fine piano chords and then insertions from the other musicians as a complex of overlaid themes, riffs and ideas meshes together to lend an interesting backdrop which - at times - threatens to swallow the vocal, so fully does it hold the ear.

Then come the singles - Kingdom of Doom and Herculean - back to back. The opening of the former reminds me very much of the intro to the Thea Gilmore song Saint Luke's Summer (from Rules for Jokers) which itself makes me think of Tom Waits for some reason. The rest kicks in though and the similarity ends in seconds. The pitch and tone of the song mesh with a fragile, yet old and knowing, vocal and make a fine listen. Herculean follows immediately much warmer than the previous track, a fine contrast: where the vocals on Kingdom of Doom are close and the tone of the track more cold and bleak, Herculean is warm but with distant-sounding vocals. It is the beats that draw the ear though and as the track progresses through the vocal sections it evolves into a rich sound with repeating loops and plenty of sustained interest. This couplet is the heart of the album, without a doubt.

It's not downhill from there, but the pattern is set: elements in each piece evoke similar feelings of warmth or chill, distance or claustrophobia as covered by these two tracks. There are influences or similarities to others to be heard, too; Nature Springs brought to mind the distinctive use of electronica and rhythm-heavy nature that has permeated Radiohead's more recent work (and especially Thom Yorke's album The Eraser) whilst going beyond that and adding more melody over the top of it (especially in vocal comparison). Later, Three Changes opens with a carnival-like sound which immediately brought Tom Waits to mind and Albarn lends his voice in different ways - shorter phrases, more staccato delivery and a snappiness that is foot-tappingly good. There are definite hints of fun here, which go from hint to blaring declaration by the time everything kicks off in the title track.

The Good, The Bad & The Queen is my favourite track on the album. It starts with a stark piano and not much else, vaguely dischordant and somewhat melancholy; that all changes when the vocal and rhythm kick in. There is certainly an edge to the pace and a driving power hidden in the bass. The vocal finishes almost as soon as it starts and then the tempo ratchets up and sends you into aural heaven: pure gold; pure fun; pure happiness.

A fine album to be sure. Not a mind-blowing one in the sense that it leaps into the psyche and will not be budged but one that grabs you at every opportunity and demands listening - demands repeating. It will end as one of the albums of 2007, to be sure - and it's only January. The only shame is that it will probably be a one-off.

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