Their names are 2-D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle, and they are cartoons. Through a series of inspired videos and a killer website, this unlikely British quartet has become the new millennium’s hipster version of the Archies — a lofty concept that actually sounds as good as it looks on paper. The real Gorillaz — Damon Albarn of Blur, Dan “The Automator” Nakamura of Handsome Boy Modeling School, Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club alumni Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, Miho Hatori (Cibo Matto), DJ Kid Koala and rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien — have created a unique amalgam of Britpop, new wave and hip-hop to accompany Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett’s shadowy artwork. Sometimes the gimmick goes too far, as in the endless parade of remixes and an ill-conceived tour (in which the musicians were reduced to shadows complementing video screens), but generally the moody modern rock and jagged animation makes up for the cheesy bits.
The throng exposed itself through a teaser EP featuring three soon-to-be album tracks (“Tomorrow Comes Today,” “Rock the House” and “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo)”), an enhanced video and the non-album tune “12D3,” which would resurface on G-Sides. It’s a slightly confusing glimpse at the project’s intentions, but a fine sampling of the group’s intriguing sound.
That sound, both eerie and reassuring, is fully explored on the million-selling Gorillaz. Nearly half the songs fall under a steady but slow trip-hop trance that can be both delightful (“Man Research (Clapper)”) and dismal (“Starshine”), thanks to Albarn’s lazy vocals, which fit the mood but can drag the slower numbers to a halt. The catchy synth-pop — think Imperial Teen meets Blur in the come-down tent at a rave — of “Re-Hash,” “5/4” and “19-2000” is more agreeable. The drugged soul of “New Genious (Brother)” is also successful, as is the spaghetti-western themed “Clint Eastwood,” where Albarn (or is it 2-D?) reveals he has “sunshine in a bag.” With any of the adopted styles — including old-school rapping, which plays a crucial role — it is remarkable that the songs remain arresting while being so simple and detached.
Gorillaz truly shines when it attacks near-novelty numbers with a secure sense of atmosphere and pacing. “Punk” is just that, disclosing the group’s bubblegum roots through a Ramonesy rush of handclaps, tinny guitar, manic drumming and unintelligible lyrics that even the band’s official fan site can’t decipher. The piano-recital pop of “Slow Country” is not what the title suggests, but it does possess an unexpected airy tone despite tear-in-my-beer lyrics. The pleading sample (“Hello, is anyone there?”) that ushers in “M1A1” is downright spooky; the rest of the song explodes with drama: revving guitar builds and builds until the drums finally kick in, giving Albarn a chance to reference Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” while mimicking Johnny Rotten.
Gorillaz certainly do not lack for product. Six CD singles have been released, along with a multitude of reissues and promos. There are also several forms of Gorillaz, including extended foreign editions, a “clean” version and the US release with two uncredited tracks (“Dracula,” “Left Hand Suzuki Method”) not found in the UK. All versions of the disc include the hidden “Clint Eastwood (Ed Case/Sweetie Irie Re-Fix).”
Originally intended for just the Japanese market, G-Sides compiles the miscellaneous dreck, like two remixes of “19-2000,” an English translation of “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo)” and yet another take on “Clint Eastwood.” The B-sides of G-Sides include the electro-pop of “Faust” and the noteworthy “Ghost Train,” but most of it is obvious filler (“The Sounder”) with prerequisite weird, high-pitched vocals and not much else.
Prompted by the “Tomorrow Dub” mix on the “Tomorrow Comes Today” single, Laika Come Home (a reference to the first dog in space) offers a dozen dub versions of the debut’s songs as done by the Space Monkeyz, another anonymous outfit shrouded in fiction. The album’s consistent, but it is dub, so it slows even the spunkiest of melodies to a complacent pace.