Monday, February 12, 2007

The Good, The Bad & The Queen

Whether Damon Albarn is implicitly calling the Queen ugly for the benfit of fans of Westerns, or if there is some deeper, more ephemeral meaning to the title of the new record by his new band (which, depending on who you read and listen to, either has no name yet, or shares its name with the record - and closing track), is open to interpretation. What seems more certain is that this feels like Parklife MkII. Not to say that The Good, The Bad & The Queen is derivative or unoriginal - it most certainly is not either of those - but it is very much a record about London and living in it. The difference being that this is coming from the mouth of an older, more worldly man, whereas Blur's breakthrough could only ever have been written by someone under 25. 'Friday night in the Kingdom of Doom/Ravens fly across the moon' muses Albarn on potential single 'Kingdom of Doom', providing what seems to be a more refined and gothic view of his hometown than Parklife's "Girls who are boys/Who like boys to be girls/Who do boys like they're girls/Who do girls like they're boys/Always should be someone you really love", screaming of a young man rapt that me managed to string together such a sequence of non sequiturs in a pop single and get away with it.
What Albarn has defeintely created is one of the best English post-punk records since his very own Think Tank. The band photo in the sleeve speaks volumes: Albarn, Paul Simonon (yes, the guy from The Clash who is forever distilled in that iconic photo on the verge of shattering his bass), Tony Allen (Afrobeat superstar of Fela Kuti fame and widely reputed to be one of the greatest drummers on Earth) and Simon Tong (former Verve keys man) looking grizzled, cold and maintaining classically starchy British upper lips. Simonon even has a bandage on his nose from what we are obviously meant to assume was a bar fight. The music fairly screams this grittiness also, gone is Albarns's Gorillaz-era dance music/hip hop influences (irrespective of the presence of Danger Mouse heading up production duties), and in place are moody, layered and vocally/lyrically sophisticated songs. The rhythm section in and of itself also speaks volumes about Albarn's newfound adulthood and maturity (Blur's last - and most excellent - release, Think Tank notwithstanding) in the recruitment of two legends of their capers, and then proceeding to heartily under-utilise them. This restraint pays off in spades, particularly in Simonon's case (although, seeing as he is on record as saying he hadn't picked up a bass in 20 years, it may have been through neccessity), as his pared-back rhythms carry many a song to a level that more youthful exuberance may have missed, particularly on 'Baby Bunting' and 'History Song'.
The closing, titular, track suddenly finds itself impulsively picking up classic Kinks-ian britpop and turning it upside down and inside-out, creating seven minutes of fuzz-filled mayhem and wonderment, Albarn opining 'Don't kick the crack heads of the green/They are a political party/And the kids are never going to be tired', and it's this geo-political spectrum and awareness that gives The Good, The Bad & The Queen it's allure and a sense of place and maturity that ensures that this project, in amongst the growing catalogue of side projects and Blur revivals, will live on as something more than a 2007 curio.

4 stars

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