The Gorillaz, Plastic Beach
Much like the White Stripes, Gorillaz are more than they appear to be. Where the White Stripes hide their version of raw emotion blues behind a candy-striped exterior, Damon Albarn, former Blur frontman and creative force behind the Gorillaz, has used the story of a virtual monkey band (animated by comic book artist Jamie Hewlett) to create a façade to allow for sonic exploration.
Their 2001 self-titled debut found Gorillaz covering the full spectrum, from old school hip hop of “Rock The House," to the dub reggae of “Double Bass," to the self-explanatory “Punk." 2005’s Demon Days went in a more cohesive direction, as Albarn constructed a concept album about the end of the monkey world. While the album may have been about the end of an imaginary world, the world that was described really didn’t sound much different than our own current state, as Albarn used songs like “Kids With Guns” and “O Green World” to draw attention to problem of African Child Soldiers with the former and our deteriorating environment with the latter. This time around, after a five year hiatus, Gorillaz return with Plastic Beach, a sunny, funky direction for the group, and a loosely tied-together environmental concept album.
According to the band’s press release, the story of the album as far the virtual band goes is that, post-Chimpocalypse, "The band have taken up residence, recording on a secret floating island deep in the South Pacific, a Plastic Beach HQ, made up of the detritus, debris and washed up remnants of humanity. This Plastic Beach is the furthest point from any landmass on Earth; the most deserted spot on the planet.” The theme and structure of Plastic Beach is a little more muddled than that of Demon Days, but it has a rare sort of optimism about it and lacks the doom and gloom that you hear so often with green messages.
While Albarn has collected his fair share of musical talent for the project on past albums, Plastic Beach reaches new heights with a bigger arsenal of talent, including the likes of Mos Def, the Super Furry Animal’s Gruff Rhys, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash, and the legendary Lou Reed of Velvet Underground fame. While Plastic Beach may have the strongest group of talent to date, it does not immediately pay off. After the oceanic intro, “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” finds Snoop Dogg as the first surprise of the album, but sounding bit out of place in the microcosm that Albarn has created as he raps the song’s name awkwardly. Luckily, other stars shine throughout the album especially on “Superfast Jellyfish," which features Gruff Rhys’s sun-drenched vocals and De La Soul’s playful flow which work perfectly for the likely second single.
After the opening two tracks, “White Flag” displays life in the new post-apocalypse society which musically melds the wildest range of genres, with the windswept Arabian strings opening the song provided by The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music before getting tropical with British rappers Kano and Bashy. Albarn’s voice is finally heard on the fourth track with “Rhinestone Eyes," which is not the most memorable track, but Albarn’s brooding vocals are a welcome and familiar sound. From this point on, the Plastic Beach mostly shines like the sun on the shores of the world of Gorillaz.
Lead single “Stylo” follows, which sounds like a spaceship headed straight to the sun including three very different characters, with the ever smooth Mos Def rapping through the transmission, the bleak falsetto of Albarn, as well as legendary soul singer Bobby Womack with a persistent electro-funk hook pulling them all together. Luckily we get a double dose of Mos Def and Bobby Womack as Def kills in the building “Sweepstakes” and Womack takes on an omnipotent tone in “Cloud of Unknowing” as he sings from a heavenly perspective: “But I was here from the very start/Trying to find a way to your heart.”
“Empire Ants” and “Glitter Freeze” serve as dual centerpieces, with “Empire Ants” opening as a conventional Gorillaz tune before slipping into a dreamy landscape, and “Glitter Freeze” is a bouncy instrumental freak out that would make a great soundtrack for a human vs. robot octopus showdown. Late album highlights on Plastic Beach come in the form of “Some Kind of Nature”, which has Lou Reed strolling through and coupling with Albarn in a minor key piano pop ditty, as well as ”To Binge”, which has Albarn singing a lovely dream pop duet with Yukimi Nagano, lead singer of the stylish Swedish band Little Dragon.
The psychedelic electro-disco of the title track sums up the album with its chorus, “It’s a Casio on a Plastic Beach” making for the perfect explanation of this sunny, synthetic electro-pop record. Much like Gorillaz albums past, even though many of the songs are immediately satisfying for their catchiness, Plastic Beach grows on you with each new listen, as the craftsmanship of the wily vet Albarn is as apparent as ever. While it may not resonate as much as Demon Days, Plastic Beach is an ambitious and brilliantly crafted pop record—especially for a cartoon band.