Since the long silence on record from Britpop heroes Blur--their last album was "Think Tank" in 2003--singer and bandleader Damon Albarn has hardly been absent from the music scene. His many other endeavors include numerous worldbeat projects ("Mali Music," "Monkey: Journey to the West" and producing Amadou and Mariam among them), the awkwardly titled The Good, the Bad and the Queen and of course those post-modern Banana Splits (or "virtual hip-hop group," as he prefers), Gorillaz. With all of this musical activity, plus a seemingly short-lived Blur reunion last year, fans are forgiven for suspecting that Albarn was distracted while crafting Gorillaz' newest. Yet while the animated genre-blenders' third effort is much more laidback and low-key than its predecessors, it is no less rewarding.
Following the prevailing trend of too much big-name hip-hop product circa 2010, "Plastic Beach" is lousy with cameo appearances, from the ubiquitous Snoop Dogg to De La Soul, soul legend Bobby Womack to punk godfather Lou Reed, and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash to the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. Yet the focus never strays far from Albarn's prevailing sonic vision of one ever-shifting, globe-spanning groove adorned with dark yet captivating melodies, paired here with conceptual partner Jamie "Tank Girl" Hewlett's latest alternate-universe concept of a floating island of trash alienating humanity from the natural world, though nevertheless full of hidden and unexpected treasures.
More dense and downbeat the self-titled 2001 debut or "Demon Days" (2005) and lacking a jump-out hit like "Clint Eastwood" or "Feel Good Inc.," the cartoon simians' latest offering actually feels more of a piece than the other albums, and it provides a beginning-to-end journey of an entrancing if slightly sinister world that exists only in the space between your ear buds.
BROKEN BELLS, "BROKEN BELLS"
As an unexpected, left-field, typecast-busting side project similar to Gorillaz, the new collaboration between producer Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse, the auteur behind "The Grey Album," Gnarls Barkley and Beck's "Modern Guilt," among other worthy undertakings) and James Mercer (leader of the heartstring-tugging jangle-pop band the Shins) seems on the surface less likely to produce a pure pop gem. But the self-titled debut by this underground supergroup not only finds both artists stretching outside their comfort zones, it boasts some of the most striking songwriting that either talent has given us.
Veering from his usual working methods in the studio, Burton relies much less on samples and more on a large array of live instrumentation, including wheezing old-school keyboards and ambient synthesizers that could have been used on Brian Eno's "Another Green World." Meanwhile, the notoriously introspective Mercer sounds positively jaunty at some points (the gleeful waltz, "Sailing to Nowhere") and downright funky at others ("The Ghost Inside"), and he bravely stretches out as a vocalist to a deeper register at one extreme and a flittering falsetto at the other.
As already noted, however, the strength of the melodies carry the day, and they're strong enough to appeal to folks who've never heard anything else these new partners have done (and couldn't care less). In addition to the tracks mentioned above, other standouts include the indelible opener "The High Road," the '60s pop-inflected "Your Head Is On Fire" and the toy piano-driven "October."