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When we think of the word 'plastic' nowadays, it conjures up an image of something technicolour and rigid, of something artificial, cheap, and nasty. But before the invention of plastic, the substance, the word had an entirely different connotation - it originally meant something that was malleable, pliable... almost elastic. As for the word 'beach' - it evokes images of serenity, peace, calm. In Gorillaz' third full length 'Plastic Beach', Damon Albarn and collaborators embody the words utterly perfectly, in a record that is vivid, lucid, dreamy, but also self-aware and inherently artificial.
This record was a sucker punch when it was first released. A lot of people were let down, which is understandable considering the gap between this and its predecessor, the more accessible and single-heavy 'Demon Days'. I personally loved this record more than the last, just as 'Demon Days' did for their debut LP, 'Gorillaz'. Here the virtual band put a rewarding level of effort into creating not tracks but soundscapes, rushing and whooshing like the waves of a volatile sea. The record is far more eclectic and varied than anything the 'band' has ever done before, yet all fit snugly into this 'world of the plastic beach'.
As with 'Demon Days' 'Feel Good Inc.', one of the bigger stand out tracks on 'Plastic Beach' is the De La Soul collaboration 'Superfast Jellyfish', a poppy witty track with ambiguous meaning, with allusions to drugs and retro pop culture. Naturally Lou Reed lends the album even more gravitas in the track 'Some Kind of Nature' - as you'd expect from the frontman of one of the world's greatest bands - and Swedish Yukimi Nagano gives a load of heft to the excellent 'Empire Ants', a ferociously great song with an immense drop to rival that of even the hardest dance tracks.
If it sounds weird, it's because it is. This is Gorillaz at their strangest and yet most inspired, with a bonkers 3rd album that is, confusingly, equal parts cohesive and eclectic.
The Gorillaz are an electro-pop virtual cartoon band with four characters; 2D, Noodle, Russel and Murdoc created by musician Damon Albarn (Blur) and artist Jamie Hewitt (Tank Girl). What started out as a side-project between two friends has since developed into a globally successful powerhouse unlike anything else before it.
A decade on from their debut, Gorillaz present Plastic Beach, an album which grew out of a retired non-Gorillaz project between Albarn and Hewitt called Carousel.
"Gorillaz now to us is not like four animated characters anymore-- it's more like an organization of people doing new projects." - Damon Albarn.
Plastic Beach follows the same quirky electronic-style but with less pop. Albarn has grown as a composer and has a range of new influences which he has effortlessly fused together. He manages to mix an oriental orchestra with Grime and Hip Hop with a brass ensemble, all layered over electro-pop beats. As well as composing, singing and playing most of the instruments Albarn is now, for the first time on a Gorillaz album, the producer.
The virtual setting takes place an island in the South Pacific made up of all the word's rubbish (think Wall-E), inspired by Albarn's visit to a Mawli landfill site and his own environmental concerns. The characters live on this island where they recycle the waste, an analogy for the music.
The album starts promising with an uplifting full orchestral intro before jumping into disco funk. Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach featuring Snoop Dogg is a track that perfectly demonstrates Gorillaz new grown-up sound as well as the album's environmental theme.
The first single Stylo is a retro-electro track and album highlight. Featuring Mos Defand and Bobby Womack it has no chorus and sounds more like a soundtrack than a pop song.
Superfast Jellyfish, the second single to be released, is a radio-friendly track featuring De La Soul and Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals). It's the most 'pop' track on the album.
Mos Defand features again on Sweetstakes alongside the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who supported Blur on their reunion dates.
White Flag opens with an oriental Arabic orchestra intro, playing homage to Albarn & Hewitt's opera Monkey until one minute in and the arrival of UK Grime rappers Bashy and Kano along with some looped electro beats, which surprisingly works.
Other guest appearances are from Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith (The Fall), Mick Jones (Clash), Paul Simonon (Clash, The Good The Bad & The Queen), De La Soul, Little Dragon, sinfonia ViVA, and The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music.
Despite having so many collaborations from a range of genres Plastic Beach still manages to ride into each track effortlessly, if perhaps a little dull sometimes, it still retains a beautiful 80s-esque warm melancholy vibe. Tracks are less irritating than their previous albums, even the singles.
The original idea of a cartoon band singing pop songs tired out quickly even if the characters have developed, they're now slightly older & they look a little bit different. On Plastic Beach they often take a back-step to the guest vocalists. 2D (vocalist voiced by Albarn) doesn't make an appearance until the fourth track. It's easy to forget that these songs are being performed by cartoon characters.
The track listing is as follows:
Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach
Some Kind of Nature
On Melancholy Hill
Cloud of Unknowing
As well as the standard audio CD, a deluxe edition is also available which features a 45-minute "making of" documentary DVD.
Gorillaz - Plastic Beach (2010)
Producer: Damon Albarn, Gorillaz
Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach
Some Kind of Nature
On Melancholy Hill
Cloud of Unknowing
Released in 2010, Plastic Beach is the third album by Damon Albarn's virtual band Gorillaz. The past couple of years have been busy for Damon Albarn. A musical adaptation of stage show Monkey: Journey to the West, itself an adaptation of the 16th century novel of the same name (some may be more familiar with the corny Japanese TV series which ran from 1978-1980, complete with hilarious dubbing by the BBC: "Ahhhhhh Pigsy!"). That's not to mention last year's successful Blur reunion, and then there was Albarn's 2008 side-project band The Good, The Bad and the Queen.
This brings me nicely to my next point. The mid 1990s Brit-pop war, between Oasis and Blur, it all seems a bit inane and childish now, doesn't it? It's clear which band had the brains and Plastic Beach proves it. The scope and depth of Plastic Beach is unfathomable at first. The number of high quality collaborations - many of which on paper sound ridiculously unlikely to yield good results - is simply astounding, if not surprisingly impressive. Many of these team ups simply should not work and yet they do. Anybody want to pitch the idea of having British rappers Kano and Bashy placed with... wait for it... The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music! It sounds crazy, even more so that it might actually work, but it does, very well, in fact.
While in the past some credit may have fairly been passed on to the various producers which had worked on Gorillaz' albums, the same can not be said for Plastic Beach, which is produced by Damon Albarn from start to finish. At the moment, where pop music is concerned, Damon Albarn is not only ahead of the pack but is leaving a trail of dust in their field of view.
Lead single, Stylo, features one of the many unexpectedly brilliant collaborations to be found on Plastic Beach, that between actor/rap icon Mos Def and soul figure Bobby Womack. It's a forward-thinking recipe of cutting edge pop, frantic electronica and wraithlike r 'n' b, all thanks to Womack's vaporous vocals, "it's love of electric, it'll be flowing on the street, night after night!" Albarn knows well that you do not have to sacrifice credibility in order to make something commercially viable to the general public and in doing this he succeeds. Other coalition with Mos Def, Sweepstakes, is no less riveting, and also features the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. A long time clever wordsmith, Mos Def excels in his natural rapping environment.
Japanese/Swedish songstress, Yukimi Nagano, and her band, Little Dragon, feature prominently on two of the album's songs, the euphoric Empire Ants and the jocular To Binge. The former is satisfyingly icy, with pacifying acoustics, while Albarn's deft vocals catch the updrafts being shaped by the gentle keyboards. Then, as you succumb to the song's dexterous charms, Little Dragon lights a match up under your bottom and transforms Empire Ants into a song which transcends the restrictions of genre and becomes an entity which stands alone, in both sound and true value.
It's not all collaborations, though. But make no mistake, when Albarn writes a song designed to accommodate no one but himself, he has more than your full attention. My particular favourite is On Melancholy Hill, which is hotly tipped to be a future single from Plastic Beach. "Up on Melancholy Hill sits a manatee, just looking out for the day when you're close to me!" I'm going to do it. I'm going to say it! Gorillaz are to the '10s what the Beatles were to the 60s. Only better, maybe.
Bobby Womack is back on penultimate track, Cloud of Unknowing. Although his vocal performance is slightly less full of life than on Stylo, it's surely no less satisfying, with a deep significance in both Albarn's written words and Womack's relatively declarative delivery of them, striking both mind and soul. Closer, Pirate Jet, swiftly follows and signs off Plastic Beach with easily as much aplomb as the record has sustained throughout its running time. What an experience, eh.
Of course, Plastic Beach is going to grab a lot of attention, if only for those who Albarn has drafted in to help with vocal duties or otherwise. I haven't even mentioned the efforts by such musical legends as Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith, Snoop Dogg and many more, but rest assured that they are all as inspiring as the last. However, I want to do my utmost to divert attention away from those artists featured and bring it back towards Albarn. This is his vision, his artistic statement and his greatest work to date. A must buy, definitely.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Orchestral Intro
2 Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach (feat. Snoop Dogg)
3 White Flag (feat. Kano & Bashy)
4 Rhinestone Eyes
5 Stylo (feat. Bobby Womack and Mos Def)
6 Superfast Jellyfish' (feat. Gruff Rhys and De La Soul)
7 Empire Ants (feat. Little Dragon)
8 Glitter Freeze (feat. Mark E Smith)
9 Some Kind Of Nature(feat. Lou Reed)
10 On Melancholy Hill
12 Sweepstakes (feat. Mos Def & Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
13 Plastic Beach (feat. Mick Jones & Paul Simonon)
14 To Binge (feat. Little Dragon)
15 Cloud Of Unknowing (feat. Bobby Womack)
16 Pirate Jet