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Living in Perfect Harmony (Gorillaz – Plastic Beach)

Posted by Brandon McKoy on March 11, 2010

This week has been one filled with a whole lot of excitement for a sizable portion of the music world as Gorillaz’ much anticipated third studio album Plastic Beach was released (listen to the tracks on Plastic Beach‘s Last.fm page, sans Stylo). It has been almost five years since Gorillaz’ last album Demon Days, a critically-acclaimed and widely loved album that really opened one 18-year old’s eyes to just how varied, spacious and inclusive alternative music can be.

At the time when Demon Days released I was just graduating high school and had been keeping hip-hop/rap and classic rock on heavy rotation on my iPod. It was a time when I considered No Doubt to be alternative just because I didn’t know how to place them in the niche genre (in my head) of rock. Oh, high school…when you think you have all the answers, meanwhile you don’t even know the questions. Needless to say, I eventually got a copy of Demon Days into my library and was instantly blown away. The difference between tracks, the amazing depth and breadth of instruments used, all flowing together seamlessly throughout the album to create an incredibly impressive sonic experience. After seeing the video for Feel Good, Inc. I was hooked. I wanted to learn all about the four band members that each character represented, surely they must be an interesting group of people to create such music and videos, right? …please forgive my youthful naiveté. After doing a few seconds worth of research I came to find that Gorillaz was no group of people. Damon Albarn of the British band Blur is the mastermind behind the music while Jamie Hewlett, the co-creator of the comic Tank Girl, is responsible for the artistic vision represented in images and videos. How these two individuals could create such an innovative virtual band blew my mind. For a young kid finding out just who the Gorillaz actually were was really an inspiring discovery.

It has been 5 years since I discovered the group that would help change and improve my music persuasions forever. I have graduated college (now thinking I know all the questions but have none of the answers) and am lucky enough to have a steady job. Recently, music has taken a more prevalent role in my life as I don’t have much of one anymore. I wake up, go to work, come home, eat, read/play games, go to sleep….lather, rinse, repeat. Music, more than ever before, has become a way for me to relate to people and understand where others are coming from. I could travel down to the backwoods of Kentucky and run into a rowdy group of Neo-Nazi skinheads and I’m confident I could relate to them in some significant manner simply through music. Music to me is literally the soundtrack of our lives as it influences society and visa-versa. With any significant lifetime memory you have, you can just about remember a song that was popular or special to you at the time. Music shows where we’ve been and how far we’ve come; Plastic Beach, to me, is the perfect representation of where we are. I’ve listened to the whole album over 10 times now, easy to do when you have a day that requires six hours of driving up and down I-95. Here are my impressions:

Right from the get-go we can see the medley of sounds and genres used in the album. It starts off with “Orchestral Intro,” a simple, yet absorbing movement, transitioning into “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach,” a relaxed hip-hop beat with Snoop Dogg laying chill lyrics over the warm tunes of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble; a fitting introduction to Plastic Beach. The next track, “White Flag,” I can’t even describe. It draws from hip-hop, instrumental, oriental, and bass synth sounds. The track features The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music…if this doesn’t give you a sense of just how inclusive this album is then nothing will.

From here the album moves into three consecutive tracks that I think will end up being the most popular. “Rhinestone Eyes” is a groovy techno tune with tweaked vocals and a catchy chorus, so far being the most played song on the album according to Last.fm. Next up is the first single from the album, “Stylo.” This song also utilizes some sweet techno and synth rhythms and features Bobby Womack and Mos Def. The video for the song is absolutely fantastic and must be seen as Murdoc, 2D and Noodle are rendered in full 3D. They are racing down a desert highway as bad ass bounty hunter Bruce Willis chases them…what more could you want? The final track in this portion is “Superfast Jellyfish” which is the first real pop song so far. It features Gruff Rhys and De La Soul (who were featured on Gorillaz’ most popular song Feel Good Inc.) who provide a smooth rap flavor to go with a happy and upbeat tune.

The next handful of tracks all feature a heavy dose of techno and synth, but each evokes a starkly different emotion and feel. Gorillaz really show off just how diverse they can be in production when utilizing the same tools. Once the twelfth track “Sweepstakes” rolls around it’s as if someone hit the reset button. “Sweepstakes” itself is two songs in one. Mos Def has a really nice flow throughout the whole thing, but musically the track starts out with purely techno impressions. Halfway through, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble make their second cameo on the album and replace the techno with a happy-go-funky rendition of the melody. To me this is the most underrated track on the album as it has so few plays on Last.fm and I haven’t seen any review mention it specifically. By the time it’s over you’re left in a happier mood than when it began. If that’s not the sign of a good song then I don’t know what is.

The next song is the title track, being “Plastic Beach.” More techno and synth here, but it’s used in a way that evokes a unique orchestral feel. The last three tracks “To Binge,” “Cloud of Unknowing,” and “Pirate Jet.” All do a very good job of bringing a very solid and impressive collection of music to an end. Even so, I feel as though “Plastic Beach” would be a perfectly fine ending to the album without the last three tracks, although they do hold their own and do not detract from what is a great musical experience.

The reason I say that Plastic Beach represents where music is today is because of what it is. It’s an album that is all over the place, yet works exceptionally well as a whole; organized chaos as I like to call it. There’s orchestral movements, hip-hop tracks that sound like they were plu
cked straight from a Mos Def album, and several techno pieces. Featured artists are popular hip-hop stars like Snoop Dogg, Mos Def and De La Soul, a techno group just beginning to really grab the limelight in Little Dragon, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble who were not so long ago playing shows in the NYC Subway (a few videos on YouTube), and The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music whose name is a better descriptor of who they are than anything I could come up with. All of these people were brought together by Damon Albarn, a guy from Essex, England who happens to be a truly great composer and producer with a considerable eye for talent.

Sure, most people will say Demon Days is better and just as diverse and spectacular if not more so; I completely agree. Plastic Beach, however, is really an international effort, and this is what I mean when I say that it represents where music is today. The fact that a producer from England, Rappers from the United States, an electronic group from Sweden, a brass ensemble from the NYC subway, and The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music can come together to create such a fantastic work of art that completely flows and works together is inspiring. You couldn’t say this about too many albums just a few years ago, but nowadays music is becoming more entwined and connected. People from all over the world are coming together to create beautiful harmony; the power of music is truly amazing and it shines through in Plastic Beach.
Listening to: Gorillaz – Sweepstakes (Feat. Mos Def and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
via FoxyTunes


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