The Good, the Bad and the Queen
We saw it all from former Blur front man Damon Albarn after the hiatus of the band that had made him a household name in the UK. I mean, he formed a cartoon band (Gorillaz), for goodness’ sake. Perhaps in an effort to be taken more seriously, he’s dumped the animation for his newest pet project, the cleverly titled The Good, the Bad and the Queen, and recruited an impressive gaggle of characters to soundtrack his latest musical vision. The result is an atmospheric pub crawl of sonic mischief for a very English rainy day. At times gloomy, at times experimentally uplifting, The Good, the Bad and the Queen is, if nothing else, interesting. Though Albarn’s pseudopsychedelic drawl takes center stage here, it’s the rhythm section of former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, former Verve guitarist Simon Tong, and former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen that provides the textured musical sculpting that gives The Good its powerful moodiness. Opener “History Song” rides Tong’s haunting acoustic ramble into a near big-band-like gorge of piano and distortion. From there, “’80s Life” pulls a near 180, calling on a melody and bass line reminiscent of a happy-go-lucky ’50s-ish ballad, complete with harmonious backing vocals. That’s the dichotomy of this record. Take Blur’s stranger moments — from 13 or Think Tank, for example — and run them through a bass-heavier version of the computers that fuel Radiohead’s weirder moments, and you’ll get a vague idea of the intricacies at play here. It’s no inspirational revival, but it sure beats a cartoon. — K.R.
There are a variety of reasons why French sonic impressionists Nicolas Godin and JB Dunckel, known on iPods the world over as Air, have managed to stay the electronica course longer than nearly all their contemporaries and still remain relevant. For starters, their airy compositions ride the fence between radio-friendly atmospheric pop (“Sexy Boy,” “Cherry Blossom Girl”) and more experimental ’70s-inspired soundscapes that are better suited to a sensual wine bar than to a velvet-roped club. They also have a sense of melody missing in most acts in the genre. The result is music, funnily enough, that’s actually pleasant to listen to. On Pocket Symphony, the duo’s fourth release, Godin and Dunckel employ their trademark bells and whistles throughout, but they also include a few surprises. After 2004’s Talkie Walkie, Godin spent time mastering the koto and the shamisen, a Japanese floor harp and a banjolike three-string instrument, respectively. Woven intricately into tracks like “Redhead Girl” and “Once upon a Time,” these instruments help construct a denser palette of ambient sound, which furthers the duo’s musical evolution. Elsewhere, former Pulp architect Jarvis Cocker lays down his aristocratic yarn on the koto-led “One Hell of a Party,” and the urgent piano and breathy vocal on “Once upon a Time” should please fans of the duo’s conceptualized pop gospels. It all comes together on the Godin-sung “Left Bank,” a breezy retro wallop suited to soundtrack summertime nights under starry skies, not to sweaty discotheques. — K.R.
A Weekend in the City
By many accounts (including our own), Bloc Party’s debut, Silent Alarm, was the best album released in 2005. The London-based quartet’s brand of dance-punk paired with front man Kele Okereke’s vocal delivery — picture Robert Smith fronting Gang of Four — struck just the right chord and cemented the combo as a shining star above lesser bands of similar ilk. In their follow-up, A Weekend in the City, the elements that gained the group such high praise (angular guitars, driving bass lines, and remarkable drumming) are still present — the Party’s just progressed to another room. As the album title suggests, the theme of urban existence heavily influenced the words and music of the 11 tracks. While Silent Alarm’s focus was more urgent and spontaneous in lyrical content, Weekend contains verses that Okereke “agonized over for months and months.” The lyrics relate a night out (“On,” “The Prayer”), the day after a night out (“Sunday”), and, on “Waiting for the 7:18,” a song the group first revealed during last year’s live sets, scenes of a train line, with drummer Matt Tong fueling the engine’s fire. The band’s expanding sound and scope, including their first use of strings in recording (“On”), is partially due to producer Jacknife Lee (U2, Snow Patrol), who collaborated with the lads in Ireland’s Grouse Lodge to record their sophomore effort. The end result, while a bit premature to crown the top release of 2007, is this year’s front-runner so far. — James Mayfield