It’s been 12 years since Blur songster and Britpop poster boy Damon Albarn first sat down with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett to draft their response to the decaying state of the music industry, and yet there’s never been a time where the message of their avant-garde virtual band was quite so pertinent. These days our stars are force-fed to us by Simon Cowell and reality television, our chart-topping singles merely cover versions of songs that were cutting edge decades ago, and the entire concept of “pop music” is relegated to fodder for our celebrity voyeurism: penned by the talented, performed by the beautiful. This could be why the illusory members of Gorillaz have emigrated to this plastic beach, a far-flung island formed entirely of consumer waste and detritus, which Albarn has gathered and tailored to form what could well be his magnum opus.
Ironically, after a sweeping orchestral introduction, we’re welcomed to Plastic Beach by Snoop Dogg, the G-funk crooner who swapped his hip-hop credibility for a banal MTV reality show to cement his celebrity status. But despite hamfisted references to Planet of the Apes and “drinking lemonade in the shade getting blazed,” it isn’t without its charms. Albarn fashions a beat of ill-omened synthesizers and sonorous bass glides upon which the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble impose their platoon of trumpets and trombones. The horns make way for elaborate string arrangements and jubilant flute work on the serene preamble to “White Flag,” paving the way for U.K. rappers Kano and Bashy to wax lyrical on war, crime, and religion atop spells of electronic grime. This mélange of white-collar instruments and blue-collar beats in the album’s early stages yields exceptional results, foreshadowing the unpredictable nature of the record and emphatically justifying Albarn’s exodus from his “Country House” to this Plastic Beach.
The scene has been set, then, allowing the album to swagger through its three most radio-friendly ditties. First, “Rhinestone Eyes” sees 2D (Gorillaz’s titular frontman, whom Albarn voices personally) take center stage for the first time, softly sighing his lo-fi vocal track over dense layers of synthesizers. Lead single “Stylo” plays even better in context, a dark funk number in which Bobby Womack steals the show with his rapturous howling. Mos Def bookends the track with duplicate verses, his languid flow looking to offset his astonishingly enraged colleague. Hip-hop heavyweights De La Soul then alternate microphone duties with Gruff Rhys on “Superfast Jellyfish,” an upbeat jaunt tailor-made for release as a summer single. After a prologue sampled from an ‘80s advert for Swanson TV dinners, steel drums and cacophonous horns front a medley of wacky samples for this psychedelic deconstruction of the human appetite and fast food chains. De La Soul’s emcees bounce off one another brilliantly in three fluent stanzas, while the Super Furry Animals’s frontman brings his everyman Welsh twang to an inescapably beguiling refrain.
“Empire Ants” begins to explore Gorillaz’s softer side, with 2D delicately crooning over a minimalist piano melody before Swedish electronic outfit Little Dragon is ushered in with a torrent of booming synths. “On Melancholy Hill,” “Broken,” and “To Binge” are similar bouts of off-kilter balladry, powered only by 2D’s vocals and understated beats. Charming as they may be, it’s clear Plastic Beach peaks when Albarn and his band of plucky contributors revel in their boundary-pushing dynamism, and there are so many instances in which they do just that: Mark E. Smith rants like the village drunk amid a barrage of sirens and delectably trashy electronic clamor on “Glitter Freeze,” while Lou Reed plays the deadpan Grandfather passing on his cynical wisdom over the sprightly ivory of “Some Kind of Nature.” It’s doubly impressive that, upon finding these icons of old washed up on the shore of Gorillaz’s wasteland hideaway and taking them so far out of their comfort zones, they manage to conform to Albarn’s madcap design with such conviction.
Mos Def completes his two-track vignette with “Sweepstakes,” a stupefying exercise in suspense where twitchy electronics swell into a full-blown big-band arrangement courtesy of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. The horns lay dormant for some three minutes, but the smooth-talking Brooklyn emcee keeps things engaging with his sharp wordplay and silky delivery while we hang on for the aforementioned brass storm. In an album full of surprises, this big-band eruption is arguably the most rewarding of all.
To handpick highlights from Plastic Beach should be considered lofty praise indeed; this is an album where the mind-boggling and the mind-blowing are wall to wall. Its brilliance adopts many guises throughout its 16 tracks, taking the form of unruffled cool one minute and raucous thumpers the next, all somehow woven together seamlessly to fit this outlandish adventure. Though it’s only to be considered “pop” in the most obscure sense, and it goes to show Albarn has a pretty warped concept of the term, Plastic Beach provides the almighty shakeup that pop music has needed for some time.
Label: Virgin Release Date: March 9, 2010 Buy: Amazon
Review: Cherry Glazerr’s Stuffed & Ready Rages Against a Hostile World
The L.A. trio’s third album is a cathartic expression of estrangement in a cruel world.4
Clementine Creevy has always had a playful streak. At 15, she recorded her first songs under the name ClemButt, and her current outfit, the Los Angeles trio Cherry Glazerr, gained notoriety for a spaced-out, miniature ode to grilled cheese on their 2013 EP Papa Cremp. With Stuffed & Ready, Creevy’s signature irreverence has been transposed into scathing exasperation. The album rages against a hostile, misogynistic world, and then directs its venom inward.
That rage becomes the operating principle of Stuffed & Ready, which is Cherry Glazerr’s most mature and complex album to date. The opening track, “Ohio,” is a barometer for the ensuing ferocity, as a brief, lo-fi prelude crumbles into propulsive guitar noise. The music video for lead single “Daddi,” in which a solitary orange humanoid navigates a turbulent sea of blue creatures, captures the sense of alienation, confusion, and self-abasement that permeates the album. “Who should I fuck, Daddy? Is it you?” Creevy sneers in her characteristic falsetto. Her lyrics often vacillate between affirmation and uncertainty, probing for empowerment in a world that consistently renders her existence invalid. On “Self Explained,” she confesses, “I don’t want people to know how much time I spend alone.”
Under the direction of Carlos de la Garza, who also produced 2017’s Apocalipstick, Stuffed & Ready is Cherry Glazerr’s most sonically sophisticated effort yet. Musically, “Stupid Fish” is a gripping mash-up of the Smiths and early Sleater-Kinney, with sulking distortion interspersed with melodic bursts of Johnny-Marr-inspired guitar play. “Juicy Socks,” perhaps the album’s one moment of breathing room, finds Creevy playfully quipping over a shimmering guitar and florid bassline, “I don’t want nobody hurt/But I made an exception with him/I’m so lucky I can breathe/When the others cannot swim.”
Stuffed & Ready’s fiery denouement, “Distressor,” oscillates from an arpeggiated guitar and rolling drumbeat to a headbanging refrain. “The only faces I can see/Are the faces I pushed away from me/So I can just be,” Creevy wails, repeating the word “be” like a mantra. The album isn’t always hopeful, but it isn’t hopeless either, as it consistently provides a cathartic release for Creevy’s fury.
Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon