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The Major Lift

This month, Virgin Records lays on us the best album I have heard in years: the Good, the Bad and the Queen’s self-titled debut. The supergroup of sorts are led by Damon Albarn, the man who enjoyed provincial success with Blur throughout the ’90s and who has become even more commercially successful in recent years by playing Svengali to cartoon pop band Gorillaz.

Blur was Albarn’s ode to British tradition, an English guitar-heavy band in which he placed himself firmly in the lineage of distinctly U.K. songwriters such as Pete Townshend, Steve Marriot, Ray Davies, Ian Dury and Morrissey-Marr (occasionally exploring arty and progressive realms as well). Gorillaz was Albarn’s move from classicism into pop-art and U.S. success—and into a working relationship with producer Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley), who also helps bring this album to life.

In this most recent incarnation, Albarn has progressed into incredibly subtle abstraction. Here is an impressionistic world built up around the most English of stuff: not the scooter-riding, Union Jack-wearing, Martin Amis-reading, “Oi” world of Cockney and supremely British self-consciousness, but a more ancient and scary Englishness of colonialism, moss-covered tombstones at odd angles in ancient graveyards, smokestacks and gap-toothed leers. Spices from distant lands come in the form of African percussionist Tony Allen, the man who defined the rhythmic nature of Afrobeat music in the 1970s with Fela Kuti. There’s even the gaunt-faced figure of Clash bassist Paul Simonon hovering above it all, laying down some of the fiercest, throbbiest dub basslines since Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Panic in Babylon.”

Simonon’s primal throb is used most prominently in “History Song” and “Three Changes,” the latter an album highlight among many, wherein Albarn declares his own Anglia a “stroppy little isle of mixed-up people.” He has always wanted to tell us the English story in his own way, to dredge up expansive realizations about English culture via miniatures and sketches (much the way novelists such as Martin Amis and Nick Hornby have done), yet he has never quite found the voice or vehicle to do so. The cheeky posturing of Blur’s Parklife seemed forced (even glomming on to the Who’s Quadrophenia mythology by borrowing actor Phil Daniels, aka Jimmy the Mod). But The Good the Bad and the Queen stands as Albarn’s masterpiece to Englishness.

It is a subtle, beautiful, complex and avant-garde work, with Simonon, Allen, former Verve guitarist Simon Tong and Danger Mouse breathing rare life into the odd textures and equal balance of polish and calculated rawness. I have found it to be the same kind of transformative listening experience I had when I first heard the Smith’s The Queen Is Dead at 17. The difference is that this album feeds the artistic jones of the adult in me, the needs of someone who has been around the proverbial block a few times and who has developed catholic tastes in music.

At the other end of the creative continuum, Switchfoot may not have reached such transcendent heights, but they have released the best album of their career, Oh! Gravity. The title track (and first single) is a limber, energetic wallop of a song that shows the onetime Christian rockers also want to dip their bread in a little of that angular, ’80s stuff that the Killers and Franz Ferdinand have enjoyed. “Awakening” is more of the euphoric, guitar-rich, Christian-in-everything-but-the-G-word, pop-rock bluster that the group have made their idiom. The guitars are like clotted cream on this album, and the hooks come at you in waves; turn off your analytical mind and be swept up in the lightweight lyrical sentiments and simplistic, vibrant energy of this one.

On the other hand, if I have a great concern for our artistic culture this winter, it’s that a lot of people will be exposed to the new Fall Out Boy album, Infinity on High. In truth, “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race,” has all of the resonance of Glass Tiger’s “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” or Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and perhaps we’ll only understand that fully once as much time has elapsed on these youngsters. The fact that the song is produced to the nines and infused with R&B funkiness is just . . . annoying. Babyface and Jay-Z help out on this LP, finally bridging the gap between the Backstreet Boys-with-guitars tackiness of emo and the materialistic, nouveau riche tackiness of R&B. This is like crossing the proton streams in Ghostbusters—a bad idea in anyone’s estimation.

Young London songstress Lily Allen has already become a star via MySpace and her U.K. success. (She’s the daughter of U.K. comedian Keith Allen, who guested on New Order’s World Cup anthem all those years ago.) The pop phenom has got it all over her American counterparts, and shows an interesting eclecticism on Alright, Still, fusing hip-hop, R&B crooning and ska bounce. Her first single, “Smile,” is in heavy rotation, but this album is actually pretty deep, with a bunch of tracks of equal quality and cleverness popping up. This is a fun, vibrant, colorful release.

Onetime Wu-Tanger Ghostface Killah’s new album is a little less fun and a little more edgy and weird, in a good way. Ghostface is a true eccentric (he’s, like, bugshit crazy) and it shows in sometimes wonderful ways on More Fish, which follows closely on the heels of Fishscale. “Stones From Greece” is a saga about a man who claims Jamie Foxx screwed him over and didn’t give him script credit for the movie Ray. The musical beds throughout the LP are extraordinary, whether it’s mind-numbing drum loops or lush R&B instrumentation. But “Street Opera,” Killah’s ode to good times with his son, makes me uncomfortable. Here, the rapper pines for the times when he and junior “ran trains for hours up in the Days Inn.” I’ve consulted regarding this “trains” business, and I don’t need a plane ticket to Austria to declare that shit dead wrong. (Calling Dr. Freud.) My dad took me fishing, OK?

As perennial trust-fund kid Carly Simon slips into senior citizenship, she has chosen to wrap her dulcet tones around standards and covers. Into White is her fifth album of such fare, following two years after the lushly cosmopolitan Moonlight Serenade. This album is a bit more intimate and stripped-down, but so, so schmaltzy that it’s hard to take seriously, from Cat Stevens’ quaint, airy-fairy title track to her hushed, croaky evisceration of Lennon-McCartney’s “Blackbird.” This album is evidence that large record companies allow certain superannuated artists to do whatever the hell they want. (“You want to do ‘Oh, Susanna’ and ‘Scarborough Fair,’ Carly? Oh, what an awesome idea! You are so awesome, Carly. This album is going to be awesome.”) By the time you get to Simon’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” you just might yearn for Ghostface Killah’s tales of gang bangs with his son to cleanse the syrup from your palette.

—Erik Hage








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