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Demon Days

Gorillaz played a hugely formative role in both my high school and college years. I played the hell out of their self-titled debut album Gorillaz throughout high school. I was fascinated by the smoke and mirrors that surrounded this animated band – it was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard. I hadn’t grown out of cartoons either (come to think of it, I still haven’t) so that may have been another part of what made the whole package so appealing. I remember seeing Charts of Darkness (their first documentary) on MTV – and I was hooked. Entranced. I couldn’t get enough.

For as much of an impact as they had on me, I lost track of Gorillaz sometime in my college years. I didn’t come back to them until after I had started my junior year of college – that would be fall of 2005. Demon Days came out May 2005. I’m not sure what brought me back to Gorillaz, but I distinctly remember finding their website and realizing I had been missing out. Phase Two was Gorillaz at their best. To this day, Demon Days remains my favorite album of theirs as well as one of my favorite albums in general, so I’m happy to be revisiting it today.

When the album opens, it’s with a spooky atmospheric track that samples from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It’s a brief intro that fades into “Last Living Souls,” one of the more underrated tracks on this album, I think! It’s a nice sort-of pop track that contrasts interestingly with Damon Albarn’s nasally voice. (People say nasally in a bad way in most cases, but think of it in a good way. It reminds me of Bob Dylan in a lower register – which could be a bad thing for some people too, actually. All respect to Bob Dylan, I like to think I do a pretty funny impression of him.) “Are we the last living souls?” seems like kind of a hopeless question in this context, but the track sounds so uplifting to me. It sounds like the start to a journey – which is exactly what this album is supposed to depict.

One of the things that sticks out to me about this album is how political it is. It was made in the midst of the Bush years, and though Gorillaz are a British band, the whole world seemed to have strong opinions about Bush at that time. I mean, if you think about the years between Gorillaz (2001) and Demon Days (2005) then, yeah, that makes a lot of sense considering A LOT HAPPENED (9/11, WMDs, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the Iraq War itself). It was an extremely volatile time.

That brings me to the next track “Kids With Guns.” Pretty self-explanatory, and yet the lyrics are kind of a point of contention. I don’t think they were ever officially published (at least not in the liner notes) but to me Albarn was always saying “Think of something to suppress it” – though it should be “Think of something to say no to.” They kind of have the same meaning in the context of the song, in the end. The melody has this very pensive, contemplative mood that fits it for such a serious topic as “Kids With Guns,” sung in a staccato tone. It’s a great, great song…

Followed by another great song! “O Green World” has a fantastically weird intro. You’re not sure where it’s going until Albarn starts singing with vocals that are plaintive but so beautiful and expressive too. I think the emotion comes from a place of anxiety, just a bit. The world had changed all of a sudden – it was like we were all on a train with a crazed conductor with a single-minded agenda…which WAS kind of what was happening in the world. So there’s some hand-wringing going on here, but rightfully so. At the time, it was so uncertain where we were going or what would happen next. Albarn sings “O Green World/Don’t desert me now” with just the right amount of feeling. The bell tolls at the end convey a sense of impending doom, of time running out.

Next up comes one of my favorite tracks “Dirty Harry” – honestly, it’s one of the best on this album. There are so many layers of brilliance going on here. This is a track that’s clearly about the Iraq War. (And the cover for the single is obviously a nod to Full Metal Jacket.) It features rapper Bootie Brown spouting lyrics like “Your water’s from a bottle/Mine’s from a canteen” that just give me goosebumps. Then there are topical lines like “I’m the reason why you fill up your Isuzu” and “The war is over/So said the speaker with the flight suit on.” Using children to sing the chorus (“I need a gun to keep myself from harm”) was just a terrific decision. The whole song has this strangely light-hearted feel to it (before you get to the rap) that makes you want to dance – which ironically the song claims is a problem. I once read somewhere that Damon Albarn got the idea for that synthy-keyboard hook from Sesame Street. Sure sounds like it and, wow, does it work. One of their best, from any album.

The music video is a great companion to the song, making it very clear what Gorillaz thought of the Iraq War (the armored vehicle breaks down before it can go even half the length of a football field):

Of course, the most successful song off this album is “Feel Good Inc.” Geez, this song was everywhere. But for good reason – it’s a great song! And while it’s got the same cynical attitude as “Dirty Harry” it’s about something very different. Before embarking on Demon Days, Gorillaz had been working on a movie, an idea that was scrapped very quickly when they realized that Hollywood wanted something very different. It was a classic tale of artistic integrity versus corporate greed, as I understand it. Ridiculously hackneyed but true. Knowing that, this track is clearly a retelling that experience. “A melancholy town where we never smile”? Come on, so very clearly a diss to LA/Hollywood. Anyway, I really dig that bass line. And I think the general listening population did too. It’s still an amazing track ten years later.

“El Mañana,” while a really well done track, is not particularly my favorite. It seems like it’s about love, but it’s hard to discern the lyrics – again leading to variations depending on what website you visit. Anyway, I like the instrumentals and it’s a beautiful song, but it just doesn’t stand out very well. It’s a little too dreary. That isn’t a bad thing, I just don’t care for it here.

The opening guitar to “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead” is fantastic, but I’m afraid this is another one I don’t care too much for! Actually, I tend to skip these two tracks. The instrumentals are nice here too, but I just feel like nothing impressive is being done. They’re just kind of plain and pleasant, even though they’re sad. Well, there is one interesting thing about this song. I think I read that Albarn got the inspiration for it while riding a train across China. He mostly saw a lot of desert and wasteland (and there was something about hotel TVs playing Chinese-dubbed Betty Boop cartoons I think?) and it just gave him this impression of being on another world.

Now, “November Has Come” – I love this song. It’s got this twinge of weirdness to it that I really like, and a nice chorus too. “Well you know November has come/When it’s gone away” is one of those lyrics that makes you stop and listen. Albarn’s vocals sound like they’re coming through the fog. The whole song has this hollow, chilly, dark sound – like most Novembers in most places. I can feel the fall breeze blowing in somewhere between the claps and that bass line. The raps by MF Doom are calculated and perfectly timed and just a pleasure to listen to.

“All Alone” has a lot going on, aurally, but somehow it manages to pull it off – and it makes for another wonderful song. There’s a balancing act going on between Roots Manuva’s stellar, aggressive raps and Martina Topley-Bird’s all-too-brief and dreamy, angelic vocals. This song really picks you up and shakes you around (in such a good way), so having her clear away all the weirdness and noise for that time is a pleasant reprieve before diving back in. I love the contrast here. It’s beautiful.

The track fades into “White Light,” a sort-of alt-rock track that hasn’t got a lot to it, but still sounds super interesting. It’s all these simple sounds and repeated verses coming together that make it work. I think it’s brevity helps too. I can’t see this track working if it went on for too much longer. So it’s perfect at the length it is on the album! Much like the previous track, this one has this moment where it takes a breath in the middle.

Next up is another one of my favorite tracks – It’s “Dare”! It’s supposed to be “It’s there” but guest singer Shaun Ryder’s accent made it sound like “It’s dare,” and so the song got its name! This is just a purely fun dance track, happy and upbeat and making you want to get your body up and move it around. Yeah! Sometimes you just need one of those on your album, but it’s not like it’s just been thrown in – it’s really well done and deliberate. The music video is a lot of fun too:

“Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head” is interesting for the reason that it’s mostly a spoken-word track, featuring Dennis Hopper. The simple background music plays a great role in creating the atmosphere as Hopper tells the story of a peaceful, innocent town destroyed by the thoughtless acts of greedy strangers. It seems like a pretty obvious parable, but this was just one of the many topics that seemed to preoccupy singer Damon Albarn’s mind. And anyway it’s so vividly told. And when Albarn’s dreary vocals come in at the end, it’s just brilliant. (See? Dreary can be good.) I feel like it’s actually a pretty bold decision to put this weird (mostly) spoken word track on this album.

The final two tracks are just amazing (and both feature the London Community Gospel Choir – taking these songs to a whole different level). First we have “Don’t Get Lost In Heaven,” the track that signifies the beginning of the end of our journey. I love the chorus: “Dont’t get lost in heaven/They got locks on the gates.” Heaven is supposed to be a place you want to go, but here it’s a place you don’t want to be, at least not for very long if your curiosity gets the best of you and you DO find yourself there. The heaven here isn’t the religious notion of heaven – it’s the earthly idea of heaven, of having all the pleasures and distractions you could ever desire. It’s the over consumption of pop culture and forgetting who you are and the problems that exist in the world. This has been a major concern throughout Demon Days, and Albarn wants us to remember that here.

Finally, we have the title track “Demon Days.” It’s a wonderful, wonderful closing track. One of the best of any album. It sounds so uplifting and hopeful, but that’s not quite the case: “You can’t even trust the air you breathe/’Cause Mother Earth wants us all to leave/When lies become reality/You numb yourself with drugs and T.V.” But it’s still encouraging: “Pick yourself up it’s a brand new day/So turn yourself ’round.” So there’s hope after all. I can’t think of anymore words to describe this song. It’s just so, so beautiful and perfect as an ending track. I just get lost in it.

Demon Days and Phase Two were Gorillaz at their best and most prolific. They took their public image as a gimmick band and used it to surprise everyone with an amazing album. Meanwhile, the story of the virtual, fantasy aspect band became more developed and tangible. I didn’t even get into that here, but if you like Gorillaz, then their illustrated autobiography Rise of the Ogre is a must-read. During this time, more than ever, Damon Albarn and artist/co-conspirator Jamie Hewlett (also known for Tank Girl) were on the same wavelength and the same mission: to say something important about the state of the world. Give Demon Days a listen if it’s been awhile – or if it’s been never – and really listen to it. It’s an important album and it deserves legendary status.

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Music That Made Me

This week, I’m taking a leaf out of the book of one of my favorite podcasts, Wham Bam Pow. They have this occasional segment called “Movies That Made Me,” where they have a guest come on and talk about a movie that influenced them or otherwise had some affect on them at some point in their life. I don’t know that I could do that with any movies or even TV shows, but I can definitely do that with music.

The following is a list of the top 5 albums that influenced or otherwise had some effect on me at some point in my life. They aren’t necessarily my top 5 favorite albums (though some of them are). Rather than present them in the order of least to most influential (or the other way around), I’m presenting them in the order that I discovered them (not the order they were released). This is the music that made me.

1) Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill

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This album came out when I was 9, though I don’t think I started listening to it until I was around 10 or 11. It was the first album I remember listening to over and over again that wasn’t a Disney soundtrack, or otherwise an album meant for kids. It’s funny looking back on it because this album is all about being an adult. Re-listening to it in my 20’s, I feel such a connection to a lot of its themes. I don’t know what drew me to it as a kid. It might have been her unique voice. I certainly hadn’t heard anything like it before. It was harsh but powerful. It was so the opposite of my Disney soundtracks. The production on this album is flawless–I think somehow I recognized that even as a kid. It was (and still is) such a pleasure to listen to from start to finish.

2) Nelly Furtado, Whoa, Nelly!

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I was really beginning to discover my musical independence in high school and, like most kids in my generation, found a lot of my music at that time on MTV. It’s where I first heard Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird,” and it’s had a special place in my heart ever since. I related to a lot of that album when I was in high school. It was something about the persistent theme of a wandering soul, of someone who was still figuring out who they were and where they belonged. It helped that she, too, had a unique and intriguing voice. I loved the way it never seemed content to stay still or predictable, making it consistent with the themes of the album. It was very different from what was dominant in pop music at the time, which, according to this Slant magazine review, was “‘pop princesses’ and rap-metal bands.” (That is totally what pop music was at that time. They’re not even slightly exaggerating.)

3) Gorillaz, Gorillaz

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The first time I saw and heard “Clint Eastwood,” it blew my mind. It was unlike ANYTHING I’d seen on MTV at that time. I didn’t even know something like that could exist. I’d never even contemplated it. It wasn’t even the pinnacle of what they would accomplish, but my brain and ears were hooked. When I got the album, I was delighted at how this music was (again) so different from anything else I’d heard. It really set the bar for what music could be for me at that time. I also loved the shroud of secrecy that the band kept around them. It was like believing in Santa Claus all over again. I wanted to know so much more about them, but the not knowing was a thrill too. I still remember that sense of wonder when I re-watch Clint Eastwood, even though I now know the physical faces behind the cartoon facades.

4) Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030

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Well, what can I say about this album that I haven’t said before? Deltron 3030 changed everything I thought I knew about rap, and even what I thought I knew about music. It really raised the bar for me.There was no going back after hearing the track “3030.” It’s no wonder, considering there was a lot of creative exchanging of musical ideas going on between Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Damon Albarn at that time, and you can totally hear it. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it had the biggest influence on me since I’d first heard/seen “Clint Eastwood.” It’s just a surprise how long it took me to discover it! (It was around the end of 2010, I think.)

5) iamamiwhoami, kin

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So I think I’ve made it pretty clear how much I love iamamiwhoami. But I don’t think I’ve given a definite reason. kin is that reason. I’d already heard of them by the time they’d started the slow-release of this project/album. And I’d been intrigued before, but bounty didn’t have the same sense of continuity that kin did. kin was not as busy as bounty. It seemed to have a clearer sense of direction, even if it wasn’t clear to the viewer/listener what that was. It was better than following a TV drama from week-to-week (kin was released biweekly). I eagerly awaited every single release up to the very end, when I snatched up the CD/DVD release and watched it in its entirety. It was only after a few watches that it finally became clear to me what it was about. I won’t say because I think it means something different to everyone, and everyone is meant to discover what that is on their own. But it’s so deeply personal to me. I feel it in my bones every time.

Honorable mentions:

Björk, Vespertine – This album had a pretty good influence on me when I was in college (a lot of Björk’s work did) but it falls just shy of the top 5 most influential list. Sorry, B!

Madonna, Ray of Light – I never listened to a lot of Madonna growing up, but I remember getting interested in her around this time. This was when she was going through her Kabbalah thing. It made for a magical album.

Moby, Play – I played the hell out of this album in high school. Moby’s music was such a curiosity to me, mainly because it seemed to defy genre. It took my mind to totally new places.

Sheryl Crow, The Globe Sessions – Another album I played the hell out of in high school. It was so soulful, and I’d never really experienced anything like that. It reminded me of my experiences with Alanis Morissette, but softer.

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Rockit

Seeing as how it’s awards season and the Golden Globes just aired the other day, I thought it would be appropriate to share this song and accompanying creepy video – “Rockit” by Gorillaz.

The first thing most people ask me when they hear this song is “Is that the ‘Macarena?!'” No, but it’s a pretty neat sleight of hand (ear?), isn’t it?

“Rockit” was the precursor to Phase Two: Celebrity Takedown, which you can think of as the second phase of the Gorillaz’ career. It was the period that spawned what I think was the greatest album of their career, Demon Days. This single was never released on the album, but rather as part of D-Sides, a collection of B-sides and remixes.

(A little side note: If I speak about the Gorillaz in past tense, it’s because they’re on “indefinite hiatus.” They probably won’t get back together again, at least not in the next several years. But that’s a subject for another day.)

What a great transition to their next album. Gorillaz was fun and, when you look at the band’s career overall, pretty lighthearted. But Demon Days came from the moment they realized that people were listening, so why not say something important and make it sound good at the same time?

“Rockit” was one hell of a preamble. The video features the animated band trekking across a barren wasteland toward a statue of the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu, while tree branches encroach on them and the cartoonish dismembered heads of various celebrities fall from the trees’ blossoms. Meanwhile 2D (vocals of lead singer Damon Albarn) drones on, almost in monotone at times, about drinking too much and falling victim to the sexiness of the world, with a constant refrain of blah blah blah blah blah blah blah’s.

What does it all mean???

To understand a little better, we have to take a look at what was going on at the time. The song was released in December 2004, about three and a half years after their last album. In that time, the music industry saw the brief rise and fall of the U.K.’s Pop Idol, which was imported by the U.S. as American Idol, where, as we all know, it went on to become a huge hit. After that, the U.K. got The X Factor, marking the successful infiltration of the music industry by reality TV culture, where anyone could become a star.

Around that same time period, the Gorillaz almost made a movie, but quickly abandoned it after becoming disenchanted with the harsh reality of Hollywood.

“Rockit” was a reaction to all of that noise. It was the Gorillaz’ pessimistic commentary on the state of the music industry and pop culture in general. In the video, I can easily spot the dismembered heads of Simon Cowell and Britney Spears, the latter of whom had a whirlwind 2004 (remember when she got married and divorced in 55 hours, then remarried 9 months later)? It’s all so much to bear that 2D can’t even bother singing about what he doing or where he’s going. What does it matter anyway? It’s all the same. Blah blah blah.

It’s a pretty angsty song. The only hopeful verse seems to come from the background refrain of “rock it,” reminding us that not all music is lost. Even in the video, the band wearily pushes on through chattering zombie heads as Pazuzu calls out to them (“rock it, rock it”). It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. Finally, we get the message: “REJECT FALSE ICONS.”

The only thing I can’t figure out is what the hell Noodle mouths to the camera toward the end. I read somewhere that you’re not supposed to be able to tell though; it’s supposed to make you wonder. Oh, well.

“Rockit” is a hauntingly beautiful song. Listen to it while watching the video and it’ll haunt you for days.

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