Tag Archive: Damon Albarn


It’s that time again. With hundreds of releases and dozens of favorites, it’s a near-impossible task to narrow down my picks for the 10 best albums of the 2014. Still, these are the records that stuck with me the most, the ones I kept going back to over and over. If an album sticks in your head for several months after you first hear it, that artist is doing something right. These are the picks that stayed with me the most.

10. Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything

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After the arena-ready anthems of Elbow’s last three albums, the five-piece goes intimate on The Take Off and Landing of Everything. Well, as intimate as such a worldly, ambitious band can go. While the title track is a seven-minute blast of ecstatic energy and celebration, Fly Boy Blue / Lunette is a drunken swagger jam, Charge simmers rather than boils, My Sad Captains is anchored by majestic horns and New York Morning finds the gentle moments in the bustling city. Elbow has enough chest-beating, boisterous epics. This year, the band moved forward and found new colors and vibes to explore. They are better off for it.

Highlights: Fly Boy Blue / Lunette, New York Morning, The Take Off and Landing of Everything

09. Brody Dalle – Diploid Love

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Every years, there’s an unexpected record that blows away expectations. For 2014, that honor goes to Diploid Love, which finds Brody Dalle in a much better place in her life. Now past the drug addiction and abusive relationships that colored her earlier work, Dalle makes a comeback with roaring guitars and shredded vocals. She successfully marries punk to experimentation in a way that few other artists have managed. Listen to the mariachi guitar on Underworld, the electronic beat of Carry On or the parade horns of Rat Race. Her lyrics and performance are as inspiring as they are vicious. This is the sound of Dalle beating down her demons, and what an exhilarating sound it is.

Highlights: Don’t Mess With Me, Dressed in Dreams, Blood in Gutters

08. Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

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Damon Albarn has always been wary of technology, ever since he dismissed sitting around and playing computer games on Blur’s Jubilee. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he would dedicate an album to this theme. While the title track and Lonely Press Play is full of heady questions on the digital age, Everyday Robots is also a look back at Albarn’s own life. Whether he’s singing about the elephant he met on Mr. Tembo or going over key years in his history on Hollow Ponds, Albarn brings a delicate balance of world-weariness and hope. The music is mostly understated, but beautifully layered. Not bad for his solo “debut.”

Highlights: Lonely Press Play, Mr. Tembo, Heavy Seas of Love

07. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers

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For the first time in a decade, The New Pornographers are throwing a party. The introspective mood and low-key songs of the last two records are gone, replaced by an electro-pop celebration. The whole crew is back and bringing their best vibes to Brill Bruisers. From the burst of synchronized singing on the title track to the sparkling harmonies of You Tell Me Where, this record will rouse anyone out of their seats and onto the dance floor. This is the New Pornographers: the electric version.

Highlights: Champions of Red Wine, Backstairs, Dancehall Domine

06. Beck – Morning Phase

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The idea of following up Sea Change more than a decade later seems questionable on paper at best. But we should have known better than to doubt Beck’s ability. This West Coast-soaked record is a mirrored reflection of that album’s brilliance. Rather than sounding despondent, Beck now looks forward to each day, welcoming the Waking Light of Morning. Copying the style of one of your most acclaimed albums is a challenge to say the least. The fact that Beck could create 13 more beautiful, magical songs that match up with the best of Sea Change is a testament to his abilities as a songwriter. If all mornings were like this, maybe I wouldn’t be such a night owl.

Highlights: Morning, Blue Moon, Waking Light

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This article first appeared at No Ripcord on May 5, 2014.

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At first glance, Damon Albarn’s debut solo album, Everyday Robots, is about the effects of the Internet and modern technology on the world. That is not the whole story, though. While a few songs do discuss everyone’s favorite post-millennial topic, this is a personal album, wrapped in electronic touches and digital metaphors. It’s Albarn singing about himself, in a truer sense than he has since Blur’s 13 dropped 15 years ago. The result is an album that humanizes the machine and peels back a layer from Albarn’s life while adding more to the music.
 
At the start, the album fully embraces its title, with two of its best songs reflecting the two sides of the Internet coin. The title track starts with the deep, drunken voice of comic Lord Buckley, saying “They didn’t know where they was going, but they knew where they was wasn’t it.” Sharp, electronically-tinged strings and a clicking percussion sit alongside a gorgeous piano melody, as Albarn sings, “Everyday robots just touch thumbs/Swimmin’ in lingo they become/Stricken in a status sea/One more vacancy.” Lonely Press Play is the exemplative of technology’s positives. The melody gets a little funkier, with a slow-stepping bass taking the lead and jazzy nightclub piano adding to the sensation of finding an escape by pressing play. Who hasn’t felt lonely and found refuge with a TV remote, a video game controller or iPod? 
 
The first sign that Everyday Robots is going to be more than it seems at first glance comes with Hostiles, a love song in digital dressing. “Hoping to find the key/to this play of communications/between you and me,” Albarn tiredly sings, with gently plucked guitar strings and a warped percussion that sounds like a dog barking providing the backdrop. Things get even more personal on the reflective You & Me and the self-referential Hollow Ponds. The former’s backing track sounds a searching satellite signal works, fitting for Albarn’s look back to his struggles with heroin (“Tin foil and a lighter”) and his battle with sudden success in the 90s (“Some days I look at the morning trying to work out how I got here/Cause the distance between us is the glamour’s cost”). The latter is one of the most stripped back songs on the album, centering on Albarn’s guitar and vocals. “Modern life was sprayed onto a wall, 1993,” he sings, looking back to his breakthrough as regal horns punctuate the verse.
 
Not every personal song is a melancholic affair, though. Mr. Tembo is the most upbeat, playful song on the album. It’s about an elephant Albarn met during a trip to Africa. What more can you really say about it? Light acoustic strums and a gospel choir make an instant mood-shifter. It’s impossible to feel down while listening to it. It’s one of those songs that kids can dance to and adults can groove to, a Yellow Submarine for today. While this album is very consistent, there are a few missteps. Seven High and The History Of A Cheating Heart float by without much notice and could have been cut. The Selfish Giant, with its classical piano and electronic beats, wastes the vocal talents of Natasha Khan from Bat for Lashes. Taking a powerhouse singer like her and having her whisper behind Albarn’s vocals is the worst way to possibly use her abilities.
 
Everyday Robots wraps up with Heavy Seas of Love. The uplifting vocal choir makes this song an answer to Gorillaz’s Demon Days. While that chorus felt like warning, this one is a resolve to the questions of modern life. This album is about growing up and living in the 21st century, for all the good or ill that may mean. In the end though, no matter how many distractions there are or how chaotic life gets, you can still float away on the heavy seas of love.
8/10

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on March 7, 2014.

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Every movement in music has a seminal album that leads the way. Psychedelia has Sgt. Pepper’s, grunge has Nevermind, and Britpop has Parklife. While there were many, many fantastic albums from legendary bands from the 90s subgenre, Parklife is the best.

Blur’s third album is one of those magical moments where the stars all seemed to align. After the relative cult success of Modern Life Is Rubbish, the band looked poised for a breakthrough. They rushed back into the studio with producer Stephen Street and soon enough, they had the sixteen tracks that would make up Parklife. Each of those songs in unique, fantastic and joyous in their own way. A band making a statement with a capital S and a period at the end.

It’s nearly impossible to not be drawn in from the first bouncy note of synth-pop hit Girls & Boys. “Love in the 90s is paranoid” sings Damon Albarn as the guitar kicks and rides the song straight into the nearly nonsensical chorus that you can’t help but jump along to. The same buoyancy can be found in Alex James’ bass in London Loves and the punk rock of Bank Holiday that goes by almost as quickly as a day off from work does.

Of course, even though calling Parklife a landmark album of Britpop seems to suggest a limitation on its sound, Blur finds many ways to shimmer and stretch out of any type of comfort zone. To The End is lovingly string-swept, with snatches of French lyrics, courtesy of Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, adding to the romantic feel. Clover Over Dover is built around a classically-tinged harpsichord that sounds more at home in a period piece than it does on a rock record. The Debt Collector is basically fairground music. Far Out is… just weird in the best way that something can be weird.

Many of Albarn’s best characters can be found strewn across Parklife‘s landscape. There’s Tracy Jacks, who has a midlife crisis and bulldozes the house he lives in, realizing that normal is”just so overrated.” You also have Jubilee‘s laggard who feels like doing nothing but “watching 24 hours of rubbish,” even as Blur blasts through one of their most high-octane songs. And of course, there’s Phil Daniels from Parklife itself, who speaks over the instantly recognizable, choppy riff from Graham Coxon about getting “rudely awakened by the dustmen” on Wednesdays, having a cup of tea and feeding the pigeons.

Looking back from the perspective of twenty years hindsight, many of Albarn’s lyrics fit perfectly into today’s chaotic world. The end of a century really was “nothing special.” “Avoiding all work / ‘Cause there’s none available,” he sings on Girls & Boys. As for those who do have jobs, their “thoughts are just pissing away” in Trouble In The Message Centre.

But when the album reaches its spiritual end with penultimate track This Is A Low, the moment is a triumphant shout of catharsis, because”it won’t hurt you.” At the end of the day, Parklife is celebratory, despite all the characters and craziness life throws at you. Maybe that’s why it’s still a favorite two decades later. It’s certainly why I love it.

Everyday Robots

The deep, drunken voice of comic Lord Buckley swoops in, saying “They didn’t know where they was going, but they knew where they was wasn’t it.” Thus begins “Everyday Robots,” the lead track off the Damon Albarn album of the same name. Albarn has held a long-standing hesitance on human reliance on technology and that sentiment is at its clearest in this song. Sharp, electronically-tinged strings sit alongside a gorgeous piano melody, as he sings “Everyday robots just touch thumbs/Swimmin’ in lingo they become/Stricken in a status sea/One more vacancy.” Clicking, mechanical beats, like a typewriter or an automated factory, provide the percussion. As a result, the song sounds both cold and weirdly humanizing at the same time. Maybe that’s the direction humanity is going in. If so, Albarn is once again ahead of his time.

Despite their on-again/off-again reunions of the past few years, new material from Blur is still a massive rarity. Aside from the record store day release of “Fool’s Day” in 2010, “The Puritan” and “Under the Westway” are the first released tracks from the band’s original lineup since 1999. That’s more than enough reason to pay attention. Thankfully, the songs do not disappoint. “Under the Westway” is a gentle, piano-driven affair that reaches greatness with Damon Albarn’s graceful lyrics and vocals. “The Puritan” starts off as “Girls & Boys” done by Gorillaz, but gradually moves into more familiar Blur territory. Crashing cymbals push up against downright destructive guitar playing by Graham Coxon, spiraling towards a wordless vocal endgame. Both singles are like welcoming an old friend back home after a long sabbatical. Let’s hope they stick around for a little while longer.

In what feels like Damon Albarn’s 79th project of the past decade, Dr. Dee is an opera that tells the story of scientist John Dee, advisor to Elizabeth I.  While seemingly an interlude in the narrative, “Saturn” stands out as one of the only tracks to fuse the composer’s traditional songwriting with the more theatrical elements of the production. A continuous church chord hums in the background as a harmonium riff slinks its way into your mind.  Albarn’s defeated vocals glide along for a minute, throwing out beautiful imagery about the moon singing.  Halfway through the track, a celestial female belts out operatic notes over the musical landscape.  We’re transported to the moon, only for Albarn to gently guide us back to Earth.

This article first appeared at Consequence of Sound on December 31st, 2010.

“An album made on an iPad? How will that work?”

That’s the question that probably ran through everyone’s mind when they heard that Damon Albarn’s next Gorillaz project was made on the road with Apple’s latest product. Its apps make for some interesting noises, but a whole album of them sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. Luckily, the former Blur frontman made it clear that other instruments were put into play as well, making the iPad another accessory in his long list of tools. So how does this fan club experiment hold up? Better than you would expect.

First off, if you come into this album looking for another Demon Days or Plastic Beach, you’re going to be disappointed. The Fall is a reward for the members of Sub-Division fan club and should be treated like any other fan club release. The record shows Albarn trying out new ideas wherever they may take him. This leads to a lot of filler but also to some beautiful moments that would fit on any of the past three Gorillaz releases.

Though the focus of the news leading up to this album has been the iPad, it’s the tracks that move in a more organic direction that work best. “Revolving Doors” is definitely a clear highlight, landing on the familiar ground of a smoothly upbeat, acoustic guitar and a nice bass beat. The iPad elements are all relegated to the background, barely noticeable beneath Albarn’s voice. Out of the entire tracklist, this is the one that should be a single. “Bobby in Phoenix” arrives later on to slap you awake with a strong, bluesy guitar after the gentle ride through the jazzy “Aspen Forest”. The guitar tone and simple backbeat work perfectly, both supporting and putting all the attention on everyone’s favorite 66-year-old soul singer. Womack’s voice isn’t as stunningly aggressive as “Stylo” or as sentimental as “Cloud of Unknowing”. Instead, it falls in the middle, combining his touch for the blues with a display of power that builds throughout the song.

The iPad isn’t useless, though. Many numbers manage to find a way to introduce this new element into the standard Gorillaz formula, making them feel fresh. “Amarillo” creates a metallic beat that explodes into synths from all angles. “Detroit” is an instrumental interlude that sounds like Daft Punk doing an ’80s TV theme. The most convincing argument for the iPad, though, comes in on “Little Pink Plastic Bags” and “The Joplin Spider”. The former kicks off with sluggish bass and drums. When Albarn’s voice falls in, it sounds like he’s singing on his back while we listen through a skylight. An icy keyboard arpeggio works as the finishing touch, moving back and forth like plastic bags “rolling on the highway”. As the synth fades away and “The Joplin Spider” starts, a voice stutters in and out like a bad radio signal. This is followed by a loud UFO drone and a hammer banging out a beat. Just as you get used to the new musical landscape, you’re thrown headfirst into a chaotic mix of effects. It’s a truly frenzied scene until Albarn speak-sings his way through the lyrics. It’s almost like the radio voice was a warning for the arriving chaos, and the vocals arrive in the aftermath of destruction. If any track displays good use of an iPad in the studio, it’s this one.

Sadly, many other songs show how uninspired results can be with Apple’s tool. The opener and first single, “Phoner to Arizona”, is a four-minute track of deep, squiggly rhythm and light whistling noises that go on for way too long. As a shorter intro to The Fall, it could have worked, but as a full track, it falls apart. “Hillbilly Man” starts off as a stripped-back affair with just a guitar and sad, haunting vocals. Unfortunately, after a minute, heavily distorted, electronic elements rip through its peaceful nature and smother everything else, ruining the song. “The Pariah of Space Dust” is a track full of metallic beats and uplifting drones that ultimately go nowhere.

Lyrically, the theme of this album seems to be loss of identity. Throughout the entire record, Albarn is looking for answers in the monotony of travel. Whether that’s asking, “Revolving door, what will I become?” or switching between radio stations, the questions are always there but never answered. The lyrical thread is easy to identify, but it’s not as heavy-handed as some of Plastic Beach’s environmental message. The Fall shows a journey through America, looking for hidden treasure in the “Aspen Forest” or a “Seattle Yodel”.

The Fall isn’t by any means perfect. It’s probably the weakest work Gorillaz has released to date. But as a gift for the fans, it’s definitely worth checking out. You can stream it for free from the official Gorillaz website, but if you want to download it, it’ll cost you the $35 fan club subscription fee. My advice? Stream it for free. There are a lot of innovative ideas, some strong moments, but also a good amount of filler. If you give it a spin, though, you’ll probably find some hidden treasures in these songs as well.

3/5