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Damon Albarn

The hard-rock whiplash of “Song #2” and “Stylo” aside, a melancholy, particularly English wistfulness has always been Damon Albarn’s wheelhouse. So it’s starting that reviews of Everyday Robots uniformly fault the Blur/Gorillaz auteur for essentially being himself on his debut solo album, a collection of moody pastiche blues that’s nobody’s ideal of party-starting pop. Live or on wax, these are low-impact, wind-down grooves best experienced with a whiskey and water in hand.

Sun., June 8, 9:30 p.m., 2014

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Damon Albarn Deploys Gorillaz Tactics in Monkey: Journey to the West

Recently, the Lincoln Center Festival sent factions of publicists to Flushing malls and indie comedy venues, attempting to draw both Chinese-Americans and hipsters to Monkey: Journey to the West. They have met with much success, both with these demographics and beyond. Sure, concerts, films, and cocktails compete for our attention and entertainment dollars, but just how many semi-animated, circus-drunk, Mandarin-language pop operas based on Taoist legend are you likely to see this summer?

Damon Albarn (formerly of the band Blur and the composer of some of the most buoyant, slyly literate ’90s chart hits) teams with his Gorillaz collaborator, designer-animator Jamie Hewlett, to offer an ambient-electro-pop-orchestral take on the legend of the Monkey King, apparently as foundational a story in the East as the Homeric epics are here in the West. Lincoln Center regular Chen Shi-Zheng supplies the text and also directs this visually lush, kinetically dazzling spectacle—ancient myth for the Xbox generation.

Based on a 1592 Chinese novel, itself based on oral tradition, Monkey concerns a charming lout (played at a recent preview by Wang Lu) with a swaggering walk, a swinging tail, and a great enthusiasm for scratching his genitals. Wielding a magical rod and cloud-jumping boots, he storms heaven, feasting on peaches that grant him immortality. His careless violence angers the typically impassive Buddha, who imprisons him for 500 years. Upon his release, which finds him mildly chastened but still a steadfast crotch-grabber, Monkey teams with a pig, a sand demon, and a white horse to guard a devout monk in search of Buddhist sutras.

As this mismatched band treks toward India, they encounter skeletons, volcanoes, spider women, and an unusual number of acrobats, contortionists, and wire-walkers. Each new environment Hewlett offers elicits gasps, as do his extraordinary costumes, with a considerable assist from Bertrand Dorcet’s masks, prosthetics, makeup, and wigs. The gymnastics are virtuosic—the occasional error only seems to underline the tremendous skill required. And if Albarn’s music doesn’t wholly distinguish itself, the songs cleverly merge both Western and Chinese modes and instruments.

But these various elements, no matter how discretely excellent, lack cohesion. Often, they stack up atop one another like the show’s lithe acrobats. Though the production has toured for years, the scenes don’t always flow together, and there are awkward pauses as the scrim descends on one tableau and opens on the next. The journey proper doesn’t begin until halfway through the show, and even then epic narrative frequently takes a backseat to one more athletic display or martial arts routine. Each impresses, but when you know your trusty gang has 81 trials to overcome, sometimes you wish they’d just get on with them.

As a consequence, Monkey, though wonderfully imaginative and commendably playful, may set your own monkey mind wandering. (If this is some sneaky Buddhist trick to goad us into radical nonattachment—well done!) Even as a narrative arc from ruffianism to redemption clearly suggests itself, new episodes seem less part of a coherent tale and more along the lines of leveling up. At the show’s end, Monkey receives the honorific of “Buddha Victorious in Battle.” And as glad as you feel for him, you may also experience some shameful relief at this enlightened version of “Game Over.”

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GOING BANANAS

You shouldn’t confuse monkeys and gorillas. Gorillas are larger and stronger. Monkeys are often longer-lived and some have tails. But what’s a little taxonomical difference? Clearly, Damon Albarn, 
erstwhile Blur frontman and relentless musical innovator, believes all primates can get along. With his Gorillaz collaborator Jamie Hewlett, Albarn has crafted Monkey: Journey to the West, a 90-minute pop opera written in Mandarin and featuring more than 50 singers, dancers, acrobats, contortionists, and trapeze artists. This production, which kicks off the Lincoln Center Festival, concerns an irrepressible monkey who teams up with a Buddhist monk, a sand monster, and a pig on a kick-ass quest for immortality—and the occasional banana.

Mondays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: July 6. Continues through July 28, 2013

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Actress+Lotide+Gobby

Garage and techno might provide Darren J. Cunningham’s templates, but as Actress he blurs the genres into a unique personal territory on which he works out his intellectual and emotional obsessions. He’s released Zomby and Starkey on his Werk label and got himself picked up by Damon Albarn’s Honest Jons. Seattle’s Lotide chains swooning psychedelia to LA-style beats; Gobby likes hard techno but has worked for Mykki Blanco and Le1f.

Thu., Sept. 20, 9:30 p.m., 2012

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Gorillaz

Created as a response to Blur’s incessant touring, Damon Albarn’s 2D side project Gorillaz have finally been elevated to a live performance, featuring onstage cameos by everyone from Bobby Womack to the former rhythm section of the Clash. This year’s Escape To Plastic Beach may not have the trip-hoppiness of 2005’s Demon Days, but live renditions of the band’s formerly cartoonish dance music make for a memorable multimedia experience. A band ready made for iPad consumption, Gorillaz usher in a new era of rock spectacle, the fine-line love child between the Happy Mondays and KISS.

Fri., Oct. 8, 8 p.m., 2010

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Gorillaz Get Serious

If Gorillaz ever took themselves completely seriously, would it spell doom for their infectious virtual-band whimsy, or make for some iconic, classic postmodernism? Originally just a playful side project for Blur frontman Damon Albarn, the animated quartet captured creative lightning in a bottle with the hip-hop-infused synth pop of 2001’s Gorillaz and the ’05 follow-up Demon Days. (Though much credit goes to Bay Area MC Del tha Funkee Homosapien, hip-hop producer Dan the Automator, and the anime-influenced art of Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett for the project’s initial appeal.) The new Plastic Beach shoots for a little more gravitas with a loose environmental concept, but the sometimes tossed-off results remain as whimsical as ever; the ever-growing list of guest stars (this time including the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble) is more impressive than what they actually contribute.

Gorillaz have evolved into an even more amorphous concept, a revolving cast of characters gathered by Albarn to do their thing in the name of funky electroclash. Here, Bobby Womack and Lou Reed supply the rubber soul, while Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, and old buddies De La Soul uphold the hip-hop inflections alongside Brit grime MCs Bashy and Kano. “Superfast Jellyfish” uses a Happy Meal conceit to transport De La back to the silliness of 3 Feet High and Rising; tossing an ’80s TV ad for Swanson’s microwave breakfast atop a hard-ass breakbeat, they rap obliquely about eating up wack MCs like, well, jellyfish, a dish evidently as appetizing as starfish and coffee.

Elsewhere, though, the “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” intro gets much more value from Snoop’s infamously relaxed cadence than the actual content of his lazy freestyle. And the very idea of a soul legend like Womack working with Gorillaz proves too intriguing to satisfy expectations. “Cloud of Unknowing” fails to get much interesting use out of him, though “Stylo” fares a bit better: Behind a driving, 21st-century-Eurythmics pulse, Albarn sings of global overpopulation before Womack offers his own rousing verse, giving the record its best shot at “Clint Eastwood”–style crossover success.

Of course, what makes Gorillaz more fun than almost any other modern act—excepting Lady Gaga—is entirely unrelated to the music: They’re not real. Hardcore fans have pored over the four characters’ elaborate backstories for years now (Bassist Murdoc is a Satanist; guitarist Noodle was trapped in Hell, but mysteriously escaped recently, etc.). Their holographic appearance with Madonna at the 2006 Grammys is one of the greatest live spectacles of the aughts. While Disney wastes capital remaking Yellow Submarine, the real money will be made when someone funds Gorillaz’ own inevitable A Hard Day’s Night.

For now, as always, this third studio effort is by turns atmospheric (“Glitter Freeze”), capricious (“Pirate Jet”), and electronically funky (“Rhinestone Eyes”), while Plastic Beach‘s more melancholy tracks—especially the exceptional “To Binge,” featuring Swedish robo-soul quartet Little Dragon—are welcome holdovers from the group’s more mystical, aborted Carousel album, giving the proceedings more of an emotional balance. Which raises the question: What impact would Albarn have if he ever lost his levity entirely? Whatever critique he’s making on pop celebrity, environmentalism, or anything else gets diluted when his musical backdrop gets a little too flighty. Does anyone really want to hear a completely serious Gorillaz? Plastic Beach makes you wonder, but stops short of making you find out.

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Simone White

At last year’s Damon Albarn-sponsored Honest Jon’s Chop Up, the most perplexing figure was not Albarn behind a keyboard, Tony Allen on the drum riser, Candi Staton belting, or the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble swinging as one. It was White, a pleasant-enough songstress on her debut who cut an uncanny figure in person, her whispered songs enchanting amid an otherwise rowdy and rollicking night of music. Tonight she returns to re-murmur those songs, the stage completely to herself. With Sharon Van Etten.

Sat., Jan. 31, 11:30 p.m., 2009

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Damon Albarn and His Adventurous Honest Jon’s Label

The most mysterious song I’ve heard all year is by a Londoner named Ben Simmons. Appropriately, the track shows up on iTunes as “[Blank],” as if technology itself couldn’t figure out just how to classify this inscrutable sound: He starts off seemingly emulating Dada sound poetry, huffing and puffing like a pregnant man going into labor. Originally recorded as a 78-rpm single for the Zonophone label (which, incidentally, recorded the Reverend J. J. Ransome-Kuti—Fela’s grandfather), this big-bad-wolf incant from 1929 was concurrent with the recording sessions of blues daddy Charley Patton, not to mention Marcus Garvey’s appearance before the League of Nations. In the heart of the British Empire, Mr. Simmons, a native of Ghana, was recording Yoruba chants. But his work was deemed unreleasable at the time.

And yet, as empire has waned, here he stands, breathing anew in the 21st century. This revitalization comes courtesy of London’s Honest Jon’s Records imprint, which trawled the EMI archives to unearth a handful of such sides for its recent Living Is Hard: West African Music in Britain, 1927–1929 compilation. The label itself describes Mr. Simmons’s output as “uncompromising possession music,” a term meant in the best possible way.

For those uncertain as to what “possession music” might sound like now, Lincoln Center will present Honest Jon’s Revue, a “chop-up” (Nigerian slang for “feast”) of current artists on the label’s roster, including everyone from Tony Allen (the driving force behind Fela Kuti’s monolithic Afrobeat) to Malian musicians Kokanko Sata, Lobi Traoré, and Afel Bocoum, with Gotham’s own Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Southern soul belter Candi Staton, and L.A.-based songstress Simone White also performing. In addition to the solo sets, the ensemble will then perform with Damon Albarn, who, alongside his work in Blur, Gorillaz, and the Good, the Bad, and the Queen, helped co-found the Honest Jon’s label in 2002.

Since 1974, Honest Jon’s Records has had a storefront on bustling Portobello Road in the Notting Hill district in West London, trading in reggae, West Indian, African, and other disparate sounds. Despite being at the peak of his fame as the frontman for Blur and a leading voice of Britpop’s resurgence, Albarn was not so different from the generations of mods and rockers who had record-shop epiphanies in Honest Jon’s crammed aisles. “It was in the early ’90s that I started going in there,” Albarn tells me from England, where he and the musicians are practicing for their London debut. Albarn recalls how he’d sneak into the shop in search of the headiest dub-reggae sides he could find: “But I didn’t really talk to anyone there till the late ’90s. I’d just buy a record and then scuttle away.”

When Albarn did finally gather the courage to speak to a clerk (who doesn’t know how intimidating that encounter can be?), the HJ folk began to turn him onto new sounds. “They had been recommending a lot of African music to me,” he recalls, which coincided with his trip to Mali in August of 2000. Taking his handheld recorder with him, Albarn began to play with whoever he came across on his travels, including Bocoum and kora master Toumani Diabaté, compiling hours of raw material. These tapes were to become Mali Music, Honest Jon’s first release. Since then, the label—run primarily by Mark Ainley and Alan Scholefield—has done a little bit of everything. It helped revitalize the career of Candi Staton, who had languished in obscurity after a one-off disco hit. Her contributions to gritty Southern soul in the ’60s were all but forgotten until Honest Jon’s compiled her early sides. And it also unearthed the staggering, Sun Ra–inflected roots-reggae music of former Studio One trombonist Cedric Im Brooks and the Light of Saba ensemble.

Yet Honest Jon’s most vital work has been in documenting the music made by Britain’s immigrant communities over the past century, detailing a musical heritage that thrived in the shadows of the empire. From its compilation of tuff and Casio-bleepy early British dancehall, Watch How the People Dancing, to its ongoing London Is the Place for Me series, the label has documented how calypso, jazz, reggae, and other music forms were reconfigured in London’s downtrodden ghettos. Treasures abound in this series: There’s calypso crooner Lord Kitchener’s piano figure approximating the chimes of Big Ben on the title track of the series (as well as his insouciant plea to his paramours to stop stealing his wife’s frilly unmentionables), alongside songs detailing the queen’s coronation and the general election. Fifty years before Chuck D.’s claim about rap being CNN for black people, calypso was telegraphing the news of the day back home, and vice versa: “They were like magazines sent from the West Indies to the U.K.—it was magazine music,” Albarn enthuses, before clarifying: “It’s better than Hello Magazine or OK Weekly, at least.”

And Honest Jon’s has extended its work beyond the homeland, presenting compilations of piquant Cubano music recorded in New York City in the early ’70s, as well as the early recordings of Louis Hardin, a/k/a Moondog. Gotham’s most infamous blind, Viking-attired, homeless composer of the 20th century, Moondog was a touchstone for the likes of Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsburg, Steve Reich, Animal Collective, and others, not to mention Albarn himself. “Anyone could get into Moondog,” he enthuses. When I remind him that Lincoln Center isn’t far from Moondog’s old stomping ground, he perks up: “Now that you say that, I think I’ll try to cover one of his tunes!”

But as to what the evening’s chop-up might sound like, even Albarn—who has been game enough to form bands with his school chums, Malian street performers, and cartoons, as well as the godfathers of punk and Afrobeat—is in the dark: “I don’t know yet. I promise you, I’ll try and find out. But the nature of that sound is impossible to predict, really. It might well be a disaster. It’s possible.”

Damon Albarn and the Honest Jon’s Revue perform July 12 at Lincoln Center

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OUT OF AFRICA

The 2002 release of Mali Music on his Honest Jon’s record label added Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz fame, to a lineage of rock-star adventurers in African music that extends back to the Rolling Stones’ posthumous 1971 indie release of Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka. Not unlike Peter Gabriel’s Real World endeavor, Albarn gets his first WOMAD, of sorts, when the Lincoln Center Festival presents the Honest Jon’s Revue. This two-hour “chop-up” (Nigerian slang, I believe, for “too much music in too little time”) includes the cream of the label’s roster: Nigerian Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen; acoustic guitarist Afel Bocoum and Kokanko Sata, from Mali; Southern soul singer Candi Staton; New York’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble; free-floating American singer-songwriters Simone White and Victoria Williams; and Albarn himself, who will also participate in a pre-show symposium at 6 p.m.

Sat., July 12, 8 p.m., 2008

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All-Star Stooges Make Brit Bleakness Cool Again

Thirteen years after Blur released Parklife, frontman Damon Albarn finally has its natural successor: a quintessentially English pop record. Truthfully, anything else would have been an awful waste of talent. Albarn’s latest stooges include ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Afrobeat legend Tony Allen, and former Verve guitarist Simon Tong. There’s also producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, who does a predictably masterful job of framing the essence of his subjects instead of pissing in a circle around them. The music, however lean, is the most poignant vision Albarn’s devout Anglo-centrism has offered: a beautifully dark, boozy, overcast dream of London, cinematic in its scope and careful in its craft. Like all dreams, the meaning is in the details: the kinky slackness of Simonon’s bass, the muted exoticism (however underemployed) of Allen’s drums, the echoey fuzz of the vocals, and the electronic sounds that skip, scuttle, and blip mischievously within otherwise cheekily formal rock structures.

Mainly, though, it’s Albarn’s innocent melodies that do the job, gleaming through the album’s pervasive fog to lend his London its bittersweetness. While the singer’s heavy ironies have often left his characters feeling hollow and detached, hollowness and detachment are kind of the point here. They don’t just characterize the working-class lifestyles that dominate his writing, they make the nostalgic sounds of the Britpop canon he’s always trying to evoke seem all the more spectral and ghostly—howling out of pubs and alleyways, and blowing through the patched coats of his shiftless, bombed-out proles. If the Arctic Monkeys’ debut captured the cool nihilism of a new British youth, leave it to a wiser genre-mining Anglophile to show the brats what bleakness really is.