Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The Good, The Bad & The Queen - Merrie Land (2018)


  

Released November 2018

Now, I have to confess, that among my sizeable music collection, I own no Damon Albarn material. I know very little about him, so my review is from a very detached position. The album was recommended by a friend.

This is the second album from "The Good, The Bad & The Queen" collective. The first was in 2007, and I am not familiar with it, so please forgive my ignorance. Both albums feature Paul Simonon on bass, Simon Tong on guitar and Tony Allen on drums. Albarn has worked with ex-Clash bassist Simonon before, and also guitarist Simon Tong from The Verve. I was interested to find that the drummer Tony Allen, long term member of Nigerian "hi-life" legend Fela Kuti's band is on the album. Unfortunately, though, his powerhouse rhythms are not really ever used to their full extent. He is seventy-two years old, mind.

The work is Albarn's take on contemporary England (not a subject I want to dwell on here for too long) and quite a lot of the meanings are somewhat oblique and not immediately apparent. It is not a "there's no future in England's dreaming" fist pumper of an album. The vignettes that make up each song are far more subtle than that. You can pick up bits here and there, this line and that line, then it drifts off in another direction and you think "what's that all about?". I used to have the same problem with Joe Strummer's solo work. I didn't quite get what it meant, but it always sounded as if it meant something deep. Am I making sense? Probably not. Basically, Albarn's not happy with things in 2018. He makes a reasonable fist of expressing a whole spectrum of emotions with an earnest empathy and his heart seems to be in the right place.

TRACK LISTING

1. Introduction
2. Merrie Land
3. Gun To The Head
4. Nineteen Seventeen
5. The Great Fire
6. Lady Boston
7. Drifters And Trawlers
8. The Truce Of Twilight
9. Ribbons
10. The Last Man To Leave
11. The Poison Tree

"Merrie Land", the title track, sounds so much like Madness, vocally, it could almost be them. It has an affecting, understated beat, like some of the quieter tracks on The Clash's "Sandinista!", such as "If Music Could Talk" or "The Crooked Beat". Paul Simonon's influence is strong throughout this album, as is that of the afore-mentioned Joe Strummer's solo work. Some medieval, folky recorder sounds introduce another Suggs soundalike song, "Gun To The Head". The "we don't care" refrain is pure Madness. The dreamy latter part of the song borrows heavily from David Bowie's "Blackstar" album. "Nineteen Seventeen" begins in a slightly freeform jazz style, before the ghost of "Blackstar" Bowie appears again, all over it.

"The Great Fire" continues very much in the same haunting vein. The captivating rhythm is once again such a contemporary Bowie one. Albarn says something about being on Preston station at one point, although, to be honest, quite a lot of the song's meaning passes me by. The music actually takes over. Indeed, that is the case for much of the album, despite its melancholy message. There is an infectious looseness and quiet ambience to the music that counteracts the supposed bleakness.

"Lady Boston" sounds so like a Joe Strummer solo song to me. Everything about it screams Strummer. He would have loved it. It ends with an evocative bit of Welsh male voice choir. "Drifters And Trawlers" is a quirkily rhythmic groove with more Strummer overtones. "The Truce Of Twilight" has a Talking Heads-style intro (from the "Speaking In Tongues" era) and a captivating, shuffling beat. Great bass line from Simonon, too. The lyrical fade-out is very reminiscent of The Specials. "Ribbons" is the one track that really brings to mind the great Billy Bragg, both lyrically and vocally.

"The Last Man To Leave" is the most bleak and hard-hitting, lyrically, although, musically it is probably my least favourite, with a semi-spoken vocal and a 1930s Berlin "Alabama Song"-style beat. The final track, "The Poison Tree" is a poignant closer, complete with tinkling piano, sweeping strings and seagull sounds. It reminds me of something but I can't put my finger on what, infuriatingly. Maybe something off "More Specials". Or even something The Beach Boys did in their early seventies period.

It is a short album, which is something unusual these days (and actually quite refreshing) and it is a work that I feel has hidden depths. This is review is done on first listen. It as a work that justifies several listens. Musically I find it quite invigorating and uplifting, which is an odd reaction to have to an album that is essentially sad and sardonic, but the musicianship is excellent and the soundscape addictive.

B-

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