Review: Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

If it takes us a few listens to really get into the Gorillaz newest album. Can we blame ourselves?

We are forced fed music that is derivative of another. Pop music all sounds the same, with each artist essentially sounding like the one who came 3 months before them. When we hear something as creative and dynamic as Damon Albarn’s latest project, we’re almost left scratching our heads.

This is the reaction that I got when I first listened to Plastic Beach. The sort of “what are they doing here? This isn’t radio friendly!” mentality has invaded my sensibilities and in a word, tainted how I look at music that is not directed at a mainstream audience. Strip all of those fears away and you have a nearly perfect album, from the Orchestral Intro all the way until the end. Is it as good as their sophomore follow up Demon Days? Not exactly, but it’s a capable album nonetheless.

Like the previous two albums, the cartoon characters recruit some unlikely collaborators: Snoop Dog, De La Soul, Yukimi Nagano, and the The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music just to name a few. However, as a producer, Damon crafts each beat to compliment the artist, making it sound like a whole product rather than the phoned in collaborations that seem to be dominating the music industry these days.

Case in point, “Welcome to the World of Plastic Beach,” evokes a laid back, West Coast vibe, with Snoop talking rather than rapping over the song, giving him a more poetic vibe, while Stylo somehow pulls off having Mos Def bounce over the disco synth beat, while soul legend Bobby Womack somehow is able to fit into place on the hook. Mark Smith, of post-punk band The Fall, is used magically, let sparingly, proving some spooky vocals on for what most would consider an instrumental track, while Couch Sessions favorite Yukimi Nagano’s voice is used to perfection singing hooks on the track “Empire Ants.”

It seems like Damon could even make Gucci Mane sound great over his spooky instrumentals. The production is where the strength lies in this album. Take my favorite track on the album, “Broken.” The track beautifully integrates some Spaghetti Western strings over a dope bassline, making one of the best that hip-hop (or trip-hop) tracks we’ve seen in the past 10 years.

Having all this said, Plastic Beach sounds a little dated after the 5th listen. When the animated troupe dropped in 1999, they were the most groundbreaking project to come to music in a while. Since then, it seems that everybody and their mother has discovered a knack for making great instrumentation. Think Kanye West and 808 and Heartbreaks, or many of the new electro hipster groups that have sprang up in the past few years. Even though Plastic Beach is a cut above a lot of these new groups, the album lacks the “epic” nature of their previous effort, and the pop sensibilities of their debut album, thus limiting it’s staying power. Not a bad thing by any means, but something that I took note of while listening to the CD.

Even still, Plastic Beach is better than most anything that has dropped on the musical market this year and is still worth a buy. True Gorillaz fans need to have this in their collection, and people who may be frustrated with the nature of pop music today might want to get a breath of fresh air thanks to some unlikely cartoon characters.