The Good, The Bad & The Queen (2007)
History Song/80s Life/Northern Whale/Kingdom Of Doom/Herculean/Behind The Sun/The Bunting Song/Nature Springs/A Soldier's Tale/Three Changes/Green Fields/The Good, The Bad & The Queen
This was the first collaboration between ex-Blur Damon Albarn, ex-The Clash Paul Simonon, ex-The Verve Simon Tong and Fela Kuti's ex-drummer Tony Allen. It is a reflective, melancholic, sometimes miserable message for the new millennium. Its appeal however, is quite a seductive one. All very muddy art rock and "noir". It is a real grower, however, and worthy of several listens before you find it seeping into your consciousness. I listened to this for the first time after hearing 2018's Merrie Land and I prefer this one. Both have hidden depths, but this has more, I feel. There is something quite beguiling about it.
History Song is a Joe Strummer meets Madness shuffler of a song, full of understated atmosphere. 80s Life is a sad-sounding number with a melancholic vocal. There are fifties doo-wop influences on it and some fetching keyboards too. Northern Whale is a quirky, mournful and moody track, it sounds world-wearily cynical. All that nineties joie de vivre has completely evaporated. I a no surprised, I was never convinced by it. There are some nice keyboard breaks on it too, very "Heroes" era David Bowie or Brian Eno. Kingdom On Doom is a Madness-influenced once again doom-ish creation. Herculean has a big pounding bassy industrial backing and a muffled, echo-ey, haunting vocal. There are lots of doom-laden soundscapes all over this one.
Behind The Sun uses a similar effect on the vocal, rendering it plaintive and coldly mysterious. The bass from Simonon and Allen's gentle cymbal work are both captivating. This one eats into you. A sumptuous bass helps to introduce the very Paul Weller-esque The Burning Song. On the collective's second album, 2018's Merrie Land, Albarn's vocals are very influenced by Suggs of Madness and Joe Strummer. On here, there are far more echoes of Paul Weller's contemporary work such as 2000's There's No Drinking After You're Dead from the Heliocentric album. Indeed, Weller's voice on 2012's Sonik Kicks is very influenced by this, in turn.
Nature Springs is a beautifully low-key, slightly ghostly number. Once more, the bass is sublime as is the chugging rhythm. There is a classic slice of Simonon dub half way through. A Soldier's Tale is bleak and eerie, and as with all the album, packed full of atmosphere. Three Changes has a deliciously resonant bass thump and another Weller-styled vocal. These songs really are ones that hear and immediately think you want to listen to again. There is nothing immediately catchy about them but they demand repeated listens. Funnily enough, there is something in Albarn's vocal delivery that brings to mind Liam Gallagher of all people. It is in the phrasing. The drawn-out bit at the end of each line.
Green Fields is arty and slightly sixties psychedelic-influenced in vague places, but essentially dour. Its keyboard sound is almost prog-rock as well. The Good, The Bad & The Queen is a lengthy, infectious bass-driven number with an intoxicating vocal. Good stuff. Its madcap keyboard "wall of sound" brings to mind parts of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass or even Wizzard's bizarrely experimental Wizzard Brew. As it builds up into a cacophony, though, you can't help but think of Roxy Music's Ladytron.
As I said earlier, this album demands repeated listens.
Merrie Land (2018)
Introduction/Merrie Land/Gun To The Head/Nineteen Seventeen/The Great Fire/Lady Boston/Drifters And Trawlers/The Truce Of Twilight/Ribbons/The Last Man To Leave/The Poison Tree
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.
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 Trace 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.