Album: The Good, The Bad & The Queen
Artist: The Good, The Bad & The Queen
Released: January 22nd, 2007
Highlights: 80’s Life, Northern Whale, Green Fields, The Good, the Bad & the Queen
Back in 1979, Joe Strummer, in the title song of the masterful The Clash record “London Calling”, announced the coming of Armageddon as the rising tides brought on by the melting of the ice caps threatened to drown the city in a watery tomb. Like the furious rebel he was, armed with the wisdom of a man who had seen the end of times coming from light-years away, he laughed at his impending doom, boastfully claiming “I live by the river!” as if exclaiming he would be one of the first to succumb and would – therefore – not live to see much of that spectacle of human dumbness. Nearly thirty years later, another musical chronicler of British society, Damon Albarn – joined with The Clash’s own Paul Simonon, The Verve’s Simon Tong, and the legendary drummer Tony Allen – goes back to the subject of apocalypse striking London, albeit in a rather different vein.
Like Strummer, Albarn does not fight Armageddon; they are both smart enough to be aware of its inevitably. Unlike Joe, though, he neither mocks it nor sinks to the bottom of the ocean while laughing hysterically; he sulks. Given the band consists of an often energetic and spirited frontman (Albarn), a loud guitarist of colorfully bright textures (Tong), and a rhythmic section that is well-schooled in the grooving traditions of black music (Simonon and Allen), it is shockingly surprising that their coming together produced a sound that is this bleak and slow-paced, but such is the case. It is as if Albarn, upon attempting to go back to writing about English life – something he had abandoned following Blur’s “The Great Escape”, found a scenario that was so utterly depressing that he could not help channeling its darkness; or perhaps the gloom had always been present, but the youthful sarcastic vibe of his mid-90s persona did not allow him to look at the situation in such a way.
Whatever the reason, “The Good, The Bad & The Queen” shapes up as a uniform mass of desolation. Some might say its monotony makes the songs almost indistinguishable from one another, and while that statement may carry a good degree of truth, here that homogeneity comes off as planned. Therefore, instead of emerging as one mass of dullness, “The Good, The Bad & The Queen” appears as a work of impressive cohesion. As a testament to its thematic strength, the songs themselves resonate as items of impressive beauty – these are all reflective and observant tunes covered in sadly beautiful melodies describing hauntingly sinister occurrences and scenes – that carry a sense of incompleteness in their aura, as if their whole was permanently torn apart by an unstoppable catastrophe.
By drinking on a musical source that transits between acoustic folk, as evidenced in the album’s first few tracks, and English music hall, Albarn and company pull everything together with the aid of Danger Mouse, who adds his signature electronic layers and tricks to lend a great deal of ominousness to compositions that are relatively simple in their structure and melody shifts. “The Good, The Bad & The Queen” is an impressive mood piece that flows along nicely and conjures one powerful listening experience, painting a cataclysmic picture with a brush that packs neither the humor nor the defiance that Joe Strummer showed in “London Calling”, but that nevertheless produces a canvas painted in dark colors that is quite intriguing.
Album: Plastic Beach
Released: March 3rd, 2010
Highlights: Stylo, Superfast Jellyfish, Empire Ants, On Melancholy Hill
Inside Blur, Damon Albarn’s eclecticism was somehow constrained by both the expectations surrounding the group and Graham Coxon’s unrestrained rock aura; forces that often pushed the band towards guitar music, even if later albums did show the singer-songwriter branching out to new grounds. Therefore, in a way, Gorillaz – the virtual ensemble formed in the century’s early years – allowed Albarn to, hiding under the veil of a quartet of anthropomorphic monkeys, explore all his tendencies inside the world of popular music, frequently toying with electronic elements and incorporating his undeniable pop sensibilities to them, with the latter serving as the sole link between his work with Blur and his output with Gorillaz.
“Plastic Beach” is a lot like its two predecessors, “Gorillaz” and “Demon Days”, for its focus is set on the kind of music that dominated the radio airwaves during the century’s first decade: electronic-infused pop music and hip-hop. However, the album stands on a more elevated pantheon because it feels fuller and more satisfying: the number of tracks that come off as filler or unfinished studio experiments is diminished even though they continue to exist. Moreover, stand-out numbers are far more abundant, which makes the work rely less on the band’s invariably spectacular singles, hence emerging as a true and fulfilling album. Damon’s enchantment with the freedom and the gimmicks that Gorillaz gave to him seems to have worn out while his motivation has remained pure and contagious, and those two factors combined let “Plastic Beach” become the balanced record it is.
Despite that new-found focus, the main charm of Gorillaz – their endless flexibility, which is heavily supported by the fact the band is composed of four cartoon characters – is not lost on “Plastic Beach”. Actually, it might be stronger than ever here, because “Plastic Beach” has an uncountable horde of guests (including Snoop Dog, Lou Reed, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, De La Soul, and Mos Def), and each of them makes important contributions to the record with their influences and mannerisms. There are the usual hip-hop takes (“Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach”, “White Flag”, and “Sweepstakes”), the excellent electronic experiment of “Glitter Freeze”, the solid pop tunes (“Rhinestone Eyes”, “Some Kind of Nature”, “Broken”, “Plastic Beach”, and “To Binge”), and a gorgeous vocal-centered R&B piece (“Cloud of Unknowing”) that is courtesy of the beautiful and powerful singing of Bobby Womack.
Those pleasant numbers are complemented by a handful of songs that safely rank among the group’s finest. “Stylo” has a very unique, and previously untouched, mixture of soul and funk that is guided by a vicious and hooky beat. “Superfast Jellyfish” is a catchy jingle that nods to “The Who Sell Out” both in its Townshend-like backing vocals and general theme. And both “Empire Ants” and “Melancholy Hill” are pure pop candy, with the latter easily emerging as one of Albarn’s most gorgeously beautiful compositions – which is saying a lot for a man that seamlessly created moving melodies in Blur. “Plastic Beach” is, then, Gorillaz’s very best album; a package of styles and influences that are pulled together by the ambitions of an incredibly talented musician, and that are given weight thanks to a group of equally gifted guests.
Album: Idlewild South
Artist: The Allman Brothers Band
Released: September 23rd, 1970
Highlights: Revival, Don’t Keep Me Wondering, Please Call Home
Coming out of a wonderful first effort that saw The Allman Brothers Band announce itself as one of the most impressive and soulful representatives of southern rock – albeit one that did not fare well commercially, the group quickly followed it up with “Idlewild South”. Where the eponymous debut was purely electric – a delightful trip through the Allman’s blues influences coupled with technically mesmerizing performances by its instrumentalists (especially guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts), “Idlewild South” is unquestionably different. Yet, rather than simply abandoning those strong black-music roots, it chooses to merge new styles with that proven structure within whose confines the band thrived spectacularly.
“Idlewild South” captures Dickey Betts emergence as a solid composer, and much of the record’s stylistic expansion is owed to his contributions, which fit nicely beside those produced by Gregg Allman – the band’s de facto leader and main creative force. The opener “Revival” spends almost half of its running time as an instrumental piece where the guitars of Duane and Dickey solo over an acoustic rhythmic layer that nears rockabilly territory, and then proceeds to repeat a feel-good chorus whose spirit and melody are reminiscent of church jubilees – a reality augmented by the gospel choir and hand claps that accompany the segment. On the other hand, the classic “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is a seven-minute instrumental that depicts a masterful blues band pulling off an improvisational jazz number with the funk undertones of the jazz-fusion genre.
Besides Dickey, Gregg Allman himself was also looking for new sounds and sonics, and nowhere is it clearer than in “Midnight Rider”: a mostly acoustic track, where electric guitars are used for short solos and some ornamentation, the song features beautiful verses with harmonization produced by the reverberation of Gregg’s voice and eventually takes flight during its chorus with the singer’s usual strong and emotional voice being pushed by powerful instrumentation. Despite all of those pleasant and significant alternatives, unadulterated blues is still present in “Idlewild South”, whether it is in the great cover of Willie Dixon’s signature “Hoochie Coochie Man”, or in the originals “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” and “Leave My Blues at Home”. The package is rounded up by “Please Call Home”, one of the Allman’s most beautiful numbers and a track that displays how moving of a singer Gregg Allman is; a man that can conjure the force and suffering that was well alive in the soul of all bluesmen.
Although it would only be with the legendary live set of “At Fillmore East” that The Allman Brothers Band would get their well-deserved dues as an amazing southern rock act, “Idlewild South” is a key part of the group’s legacy – one that was built especially on the shoulders of its first four records. It was here that the Allmans found the versatility that is so key to every major and historic rock band, and they did it all while still displaying their unbelievable skills as musicians, and interpreters and re-inventors of the American southern musical tradition.
Album: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion
Artist: The Black Crowes
Released: May 12th, 1992
Highlights: Sting Me, Remedy, Thorn In My Pride, Hotel Illness
Amidst the swarm of grunge and alternative bands (such as R.E.M., the Pixies, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, and many others) that ruled the American soil as the 80s became the 90s, The Black Crowes were a dot way out of the curve; an island of traditionalism on a sea of new sounds. Born inside the borders of Georgia, hence within the direct area of influence of R.E.M., the group set out to innovate not by looking ahead, but by glancing towards the past and reviving the rhythms that its contemporaries acknowledged and loved, but had chosen not to fully explore as a way to differentiate themselves from what had come before. The Black Crowes, on the other hand, ran straight onto them, and their second work, “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion”, is also – quite possibly – their finest moment.
This is not southern rock produced inside a bubble, though, and so – in more ways than one, The Black Crowes do not summon the rhythm in its rawest state. Instead, they infuse it with hard rock, putting forth tracks that groove like the blues but that have a very heavy punch to them. “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion” takes that unique, yet revivalist, brand of rock that was established on the debut “Shake Your Money Maker” and builds on it via a prominent layer of rhythmic keyboards, a gospel choir that is almost omnipresent (only being left out of a couple of tracks), and a more focused – yet stronger and more ambitious – type of songwriting, with three tracks surpassing the six-minute mark and a fantastic balance between heavier tunes and ballads.
That riff-based exploration of southern rock yielded four absolute hits that serve as the cornerstone for the album: the opener “Sting Me”, certainly the most energetic and fast-paced song on the record, featuring a simple and catchy chorus; “Remedy”, which is carried by an unmistakable riff that works as the song’s main hook; the moving ballad “Thorn in My Pride”; and the boogie of “Hotel Illness”. Although they are without a shadow of doubt the best songs in the package, everywhere else on the album The Black Crowes are hitting all the sweet spots: their sometimes gigantic riffs landing with sheer force, their folk melodies delivering the perfect degree of emotion, their short jams working as pleasant breaks from the guitar onslaught, and their solos being ideal both in length and execution.
Given they would later veer towards more improvisational material, “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion” is the ultimate expression of The Black Crowes’ sound in its most direct and untouched form; a great testament to the impressive talents of the Robinson brothers and the rest of the group as well. Although moments of considerable brightness lay in their future, never would the group sound this good and determined again.