Making the Sophomore Cut

Unusual spawn of hip-hop, Gorillaz invites some celebrity voices onto second album

The first half of the new CD is flawless, with some of the best thundering and ominous low-frequency vibrations underneath synthesized effects of the best vintage sounds brought back in high style. The single, “Feel Good Inc.,” which has appeared on the newest iPod silhouette-fest commercial and in the album’s first animated fantasy music video, begins with a wispy rendition of singer Damon Albarn’s ephemeral voice and lyrics. His tone stitches together the lyrics into an admirable display of vocal ease. The song then transitions through a sweet acoustic chorus into a crafty hip-hop feature of De La Soul. Best in its hauntingly glib conversational beginning, the song sounds slightly like a gloomy number from Cake.

The album’s best song is the magnum opus, “Dirty Hairy,” that, on its surface, sounds like a disco ballad, but layered deep within its suggestive lyrics is a protest song against the war in Iraq. Desert warfare and being the pawns of a narrator in a flight suit are unmistakable allusions. The children’s chorus eerily sings “They ain’t got a chance” while a happy dance beat rocks below, until a bone-chilling howl seamlessly transitions into a rap diatribe (“I’m the reason you can fill up your Isuzu”) ending in “all I wanna do is dance” and back to the snazzy club beats.

The perfectly simplistic “Kids with Guns” and the title track, “Demon Days” where Albarn sings “Don’t burn yourself, turn yourself around to see the sun” is loaded with anti-gun and anti-drug references. The music is hallucinogenic enough.

The album’s second half wanes a bit, especially “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head,” which is out of place with the dull narrative spoken-voice and the relentless references to “monkey” embarrassingly overdone. The background music is still delicious, but the song seems like a waste of valuable disk space.

Later on, the rap interludes begin to get sloppy, as well as distracting. Hip-hop is essential to the mystique of Gorillaz, but Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and his sagacious rapping is sorely missed. His style combined with the producing talents of Gorillaz in “Clint Eastwood” from the first album practically redefined the expressive abilities of rap and became a defining characteristic of Gorillaz.

Any stable roster, however, doesn’t limit the band. This album features guest spots from veteran hip-hop act De La Soul, actor Dennis Hopper and R&B legend Ike Turner, among others, as well as an ambiguous reference to the Beatles.

“Demon Days” album cover is a Beatles “Let it Be” knock-off. Murdoc, the devil-worshipping bass player, takes Lennon’s upper left box; 2-d, the melancholy lead singer, is in McCartney’s spot; Noodle, the 10-year-old Japanese girl guitarist, in Ringo’s spot; and Russel the drummer and rapper takes Harrison’s place. Any Beatles satire aside, the cover is a perfect display of the band’s dark, sardonic persona.

The band is the creation of Blur front man Damon Albarn, illustrator Jamie Hewlett, and fantasy hip-hop producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, who together produce the music.

Gorillaz is only one of Albarn’s many projects, which include recording a new album with British rock band Blur after a five-year hiatus and work on a series of world-music recordings. He put everything on hold to record and promote “Demon Days,” including a promise to beef up their live performances, and avoid the last album’s lackluster tour that included hiding behind a screen featuring the animated band members. The world has more to hear from the mastermind of musical reinvention, Damon Albarn.

Whether you choose to imagine four cartoon characters behind the stellar sound of “Demon Days,” or you’re a realist and a fan of Albarn, this Gorillaz album is simply a studio masterpiece.

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