Most people already know the not-so-funny inside joke about Gorillaz: that they are composed of four cartoon figures, not real people. Russel, a large African-American, plays drums; Noodle, a prepubescent Asian girl, plays guitar; Murdoc is on bass; and 2-D sings. These cartoon figures receive all the credit in the liner notes, their images appear on the cover of the record and with articles about the band, and they have even been known to give interviews. In reality the band is a collaboration between San Francisco DJ Dan Nakamura, underground British cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, and Blur singer-guitarist Damon Albarn.
Both the name (a hip-hop/hacker take on "guerillas") and the bizarro-world concept behind the band give a pretty accurate picture of the hodgepodge, ultra-hip, transglobal style of the music. Enhanced by guests such as the Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club member Tina Weymouth and Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, the sound incorporates equal parts home studio DIY, club-land cool, and 21st century global inclusiveness. It's like Beck with a dash of Asian flavor, British guitar pop, and punk ethos, minus...well, minus the wince-worthy polyester night club act that Beck seemed so proud of on "Midnite Vultures".
The record starts off with "Re-Hash" and "5/4" (cheekily named for its unusual time signature), which sound like Blur on an adventurous day with a few loops and deep bass grooves thrown in for good measure. But just when you're starting to think that this record is going to be "BlurNow With Electronica!", it veers unexpectedly off course and never looks back.
The rest of the album is all over the map, with styles ranging from stoner space outs ("Tomorrow Comes Today", "Sound Check", "Double Bass"), Julian Cope-inspired oddball experiments ("Man Research", "Starshine"), fake reggae-dub done in the fascinating way that only the English can do it ("Slow Country", "Dracula"), along with several one-off experiments like the blink-and-you-missed-it "Punk", replete with a simplistic, repetitive guitar riff, handclaps as percussion, and totally unintelligible lyrics (on the lyrics section of the official fan site this is the info they have for this song: "If anyone knows the lyrics to this song, I would really like to know.").
You know how the first single from this album, "Clint Eastwood", never, ever gets old, no matter how many times you hear it? That's pretty much the way the record functions as a whole. Even the stranger songs that were never intended for radio playlists grow on you, revealing new hooks and layers every time you listen to them. The album flows very well, and it sometimes feels like you're listening to a really good DJ who is mixing songs from a bunch of different groups rather than listening to a cohesive album, but that's exactly the kind of freestyle vibe is one of the key elements of Gorillaz. The record does have some standout individual tracks, aside from "Clint Eastwood", including "5/4", "Slow Country", and "19-2000" (which, thanks to guest vocals from Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, sounds like the soundtrack from a Q-Bert/Sailor Moon crossover), but by far its most impressive accomplishment is its cohesiveness as an album despite the myriad styles and sounds used in its creation.
Amazingly enough, this quirky little record has become a surprise hit, going gold in the US largely on the strength "Clint Eastwood". And frankly, the Billboard charts could use a few more surprise hits like this. If MTV ever bothered to feature artists like Gorillaz instead of engaging in their unending fellatio on cookie-cutter pop, this-sound-was-old-five-years-ago R&B slow jams, and monotonously boastful rap/hip hop, it might actually be worth watching on occasion. But for now, I'll take this little victory from the Gorillaz insurgents, and hope it's a sign of better days to come.