Monday, February 05, 2007

Westway To The World

The Good, The Bad & The Queen is the latest project from Damon Albarn, leader of Brit-pop standard-bearers Blur and, more recently, mastermind behind cartoon hitmakers Gorillaz. Albarn's deft and absurdly catchy portrayals of life among the posh kids of East London, most notably on Blur's landmark Parklife album in 1994, have drawn repeated comparisons to the great Ray Davies and cemented his reputation as a songwriter of uncommon intelligence, wit and melodic ability.

With this project, however, Albarn has the other, more down-at-the-heels side of the great city in his sights, and has surrounded himself with a skilled and eclectic group of musicians: former Verve guitarist Simon Tong, Afro-beat drummer Tony Allen and -- coolest of all -- The Clash's Paul Simonon on bass, rumpled black suit, porkpie hat and bad-ass West London iconography. The results are never less than fascinating, and frequently brilliant. Flamenco guitar, Simonon's plodding bass and Albarn's sleepy vocal carry the dub-influenced "History Song," which would have been right at home on Sandinista!. Elsewhere, strings swoon and electronic elements bubble to the surface as Albarn chronicles the seamier side of London in all its early 21st century color and decay. For all the moody atmospherics that he's clearly after, though, Albarn just can't help but write great melodies. "Kingdom of Doom" is dark and menacing in the verses, but takes a delicious Kinksian turn at the chorus that belies Albarn's undeniable gifts as a pop songwriter. Both "Behind The Sun" and "A Soldier's Tale" sport flat-out lovely tunes, reminiscent of late Blur stunners like "Sweet Song." Meanwhile, "Herculean," the record's centerpiece, is just an fantastic track in every way -- a wonderful song and arrangement wedded to daring, inventive production, courtesy of Albarn's Gorillaz cohort (and one-half of Gnarls Barkley), Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton.

As fans of Blur cling to the hope that the band will re-group and make another pop-rock record, it seems that Damon Albarn continues to have more eclectic pursuits in mind. But when the work he's focused on is as good as this, it's hard to complain. TBTB&TQ are currently playing rapturously-received shows in the UK and Europe, and are slated to hit the States in March, including dates at the South By Southwest and Coachella festivals, with a full-blown U.S. tour a possibility this summer.

MP3: The Good, The Bad & The Queen - "Kingdom of Doom"