You’d have to judge the quality of Gorillaz on a sliding scale of how seriously you take them. If you see this group project as the light-as-fluff sideline of a few otherwise busy pop-culture gurus, then you can accept it as an amusing hour of distraction. But if you think the free time of people like Blur’s Damon Albarn, slick-boy producer Dan The Automator, and cartoonist Jamie (Tank Girl) Hewlett should produce Something Really Important, then you’re in for a letdown.
Thing is, it’s difficult to tell which way these players want you to take it. On one hand, Gorillaz is presented as a virtual-cum-cartoon band, à la the Archies, complete with a convoluted backstory about its four comic-strip characters (do we really care that “Murdoc” is from Stoke on Trent and “2D” has migraines?) and animated videos compliments Hewlett. Real Schoolhouse Rock fare. On the other hand, the band is touring and producing a special for the BBC and declaring Gorillaz a political reaction against prefab teen pop—which packs more weighty commitment than the music seems worth.
Even so, the U.K. is swallowing it all, including the band’s eponymous debut album, without complaint; “Clint Eastwood,” the band’s first single, is a chart success and rock journo favorite in London. Part of this, of course, is due to Albarn’s status as an English tabloid superstar—the Britpop paparazzi come running every time he takes a dump, let alone diddles around in a recording studio. But the music? It’s what you might expect from a bunch of musos playing with Cubase or ProTools: sampled loops, Brixton dub, trip-hoppy tangents. U.N.K.L.E.’s bratty nephew, really, though the album sounds like the group locked the metronome on “heavy funk groove”—chugging and satisfying at first, it feels exhausted by the fifth or sixth track.
“Punk” is a highlight, perhaps because it’s like someone dropped an old Jam tune in the middle of the swamp, and “Clint Eastwood” has heated moments. But the horns, the Hammond, the rap—nothing seems new or surprising here.
Guests include Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto, but the big question is whether the members will bother throwing enough energy behind Gorillaz to keep its nose above water, since the only player here needing career resuscitation is Hewlett. Within a year, the whole project might end up a mere blip of London nostalgia, as in: “Hey, you remember ‘Clint Eastwood,’ by the cartoon band? That was all right.” And thus they’ll be right on par with not only what they were worth in the first place, but with so many bands these days, including the girl and boy groups they aim to sabotage.