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Album Review: Plastic Beach by Gorillaz

Plastic Beach by Gorillaz (Virgin Records, 2010)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Everyone’s favorite “virtual” band is back, and they’ve brought a huge slate of guest stars – from De La Soul and Snoop Dogg to Lou Reed and members of The Clash – along for the ride.  I’m speaking, of course, of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s Gorillaz project.  They’ve just released Plastic Beach, another wildly entertaining romp through hip-hop, R&B, electronic music, rock and pop.

The third Gorillaz album seems shrouded in this concept of a plastic reality.  And while it’s arguable as to whether or not Plastic Beach is a concept album,  it certainly starts like one.  “Orchestral Intro” is a short piece that simply sets the mood, much like “I Am The Sea” on The Who’s Quadrophenia or “Overture” on Tommy.  But unlike those albums, it doesn’t really offer the listener any hint of what’s to come.  Gears are shifted completely for “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach,” with its funky horns, punchy bass, and the distinctive emceeing of Snoop Dogg.

The album really hits its stride with “Stylo,” which incidentally is also the album’s first single.  The track perfectly illustrates the collaborative potential of the Gorillaz project, beginning with Mos Def’s distorted hip-hop riffing, into Damon Albarn’s melodic vocals and finally soul legend Bobby Womack, sounding every bit as good as he did on such hits as “Across 110th Street.”  Supposedly Womack was encouraged to participate in this project by his daughter, and his flawless contribution to “Stylo” was supposedly improvised on the spot.

The next track, “Superfast Jellyfish,” starts with a 1960s-style breakfast commercial, a fantastic drum part… and De La Soul!  In their classic, distinctive style, the hip-hop heroes excitedly tell us about the latest in unusual breakfast treats.  Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals takes over for the catchy chorus.

A big part of what makes Plastic Beach such an interesting listen is the number of lead vocalists featured on the album.  One of the most intriguing of these is Lou Reed, and his contribution – “Some Kind Of Nature” – doesn’t sound out of place at all, apart from a production style that is unusual for him.  Another great voice in more of a conventional sense is Yukimi Nagano, who along with her band Little Dragon, are featured on “To Binge,” another album highlight.

Although most tracks on the album feature guest performers, Damon Albarn has plenty of room to shine.  “On Melancholy Hill” is a gorgeous song and a great showcase for his talents as a singer.

Plastic Beach is available in a variety of formats, including a standard CD edition and an “experience” edition that comes with videos and exclusive online content.  It’s also available on iTunes in a deluxe edition that includes content not available offline, including a storybook and “Making of Stylo” video.

Check out the official video for “Stylo” over at YouTube. Yes, that’s Bruce Willis.

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