Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Last Gang In Town

I rarely get excited anymore about the emergence of a new group. The last time I got really excited about a new band was, I suppose, Goldfrapp six years ago. Last year when word came out that Blur-Gorillaz founder Damon Albarn had formed a new band my interest was sparked. When I heard that the new band that Albarn had gathered together consisted of Paul Simonon (The Clash)on bass, Simon Tong (The Verve) on guitar and 66 year old Tony Allen (Africa 70) on drums my interest was a bit more than just sparked.
Supergroups are a tricky matter, they either work incredibly well or are colossal misfires. Since the band was announced their have been the typical naysayers but with Albarn at the head of the project I have never been worried that this would be anything less than interesting.
The elusive Simonon seems to have gathered the most attention it seems, mostly from proclaimed Clash fans who apparently don't listen to anything after the first Clash album. When the astonishing first GBQ single, Herculean, was released in October their were many shouts complaining that it doesn't sound like The Clash (i.e. that it doesn't sound like the two chord punk a lot of people were wanting).
Herculean is an off kilter exhilarating piece of work that would have sounded right at home on Blur's last studio album Think Tank. The band falls into place perfectly with Simonon delivering a slinky bass line that measure off perfectly with Allen's amazingly timed drumming. Simon consistently delivers inventive guitar licks and Albarn's always present piano perfectly compliments his lyrical lament on England's working class.
The Good The Bad and The Queen performed the album, scheduled for release in late January, in it's entirety on October 26th at Camden's Roundhouse. The recording by the BBC has been readily available on the Internet and it signals a major album.
The opening, History Song, sets the tone for the whole album showcasing a band that sounds more like a jazz unit than a typical rock band.
Albarn's lyrics continue the obsessive forecasting of England that he has been doing so potently since Blur's 2nd album Modern Life Is Rubbish. Lyrically this is very much Albarn's baby. The potent second track, 80's Life, compares modern England to the Thatcherism of the 80's that Albarn's generation has struggled so long to get away from. "I don't want to live a war that's got no end in our time." is as potent a line that Albarn's ever written.
Northern Whale and Kingdom Of Doom both seem to reflect the growing unease in modern society that things are completely out of control and on the verge of collapsing. Musically the songs all have a unique lamenting quality that never resorts to nostalgia or overt sentimentality, as dark as Albarn's lyrics get the band's free playing gives them a much needed lightness.
Simonon fans will recognize this album as being much closer to Sandinista rather than Give Them Enough Rope. His love of dub is apparent on his playing here and the guy has become a wonderfully fluent and accomplished musician.
Fans of The Verve will find much to appreciate here as Simon Tong delivers some of his most subtle guitar work, the guy's intelligent enough to never overwhelm the songs with needless solos but what's here is quietly devastating.
Brian Eno called Tony Allen the greatest drummer who ever lived and one listen to the live Intermission Jam highlights this well. The afrobeat founder is nothing short of astonishing and he centers each song with a furiously perfect rythmic sense that Simonon is obviously having a great time playing off (and probably keeping up with).
Albarn's keyboard and piano work has never been stronger than it is on these songs, listen to the opening of the haunting Bunting Song. Damon's music perfectly compliments his lyrics throughout the record and never as much as on this track. The closing lines, "They put a party on and waited for the sunlight to recall all the days a ticking gone." recalls not only Blur's Death of A Party but also the apocalyptic final moments of The Clash's Sandinista.
Nature Springs recalls Bowie's Berlin trilogy with it's hummed background chants and instrumental breaks. Simonon's bass is particularly good here and Albarn's whistling interlude gives this lyrically spare song an eerie folk feel.
A Soldier's Tale continues Albarn's simultaneous mistrust and reliance on the computer age. The line, "Emptiness in computers bother me" sounds almost like a sequel to one of Blur's final singles Out Of Time. Albarn's work, like some of our finest writers, struggles with the problem of hating the conventions that we rely upon so heavily.
Three Changes is one of the oddest of the new songs and it's the one that fell apart during the performance, Albarn restarts it a couple of times and at its most manic it sounds like Ornette Coleman performing deranged rockabilly.
The album closes with the amazing title track which is one of the best things any of these players have ever done. Chugging along like a near out of control train Albarn's lyrics dart between hope and despair with the band finally just splintering out in separate directions. The most free-jazz like track on the album is centered not by the Rythm section but by Albarn's great piano work. Live you can hear him yelling to the band as if to say keep up and the final minute long collapse is as mind blowing as anything you'll hear in modern music. It's like the Kinks Last Of The Steam Powered Trains hurling itself off the tracks into a lost dream.
Albarn is gearing up for a big year, first with this album and then the return of Blur with Graham Coxon. He's one of the great voices in modern music and The Good The Bad and The Queen will be one of his great works, don't let it slip by.

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