Say Yea to Gorillaz, Broken Bells

Hard to believe 2010 is already 1/4 over! I feel like it was just yesterday when I wrote a post about my top rock albums of 2009! Three months into the new year, and there’s already been a smattering of great albums. Some, like Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach,  I had been expecting. Others, like Yeasayer’s fantastic sophomore album, caught me by surprise.

Here’s my take on some fresh music:

Gorillaz – Plastic Beach Before its release, co-creator/singer Damon Albarn called Plastic Beach “the most pop record I’ve ever made in many ways.”

In my opinion, that’s a little misleading.

Yes, the cartoon band has scored an all-star cast of collaborators, including Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack and half of the Clash. And yes, a single or two is probably going to shoot up the charts (“Stylo” and “Some Kind of Nature” are very addictive). But let’s be clear here: this album ain’t feel good…er… Inc. The most upbeat song in the set (which coincidentally features De La Soul), is about kids eating processed jellyfish for breakfast.

Don’t get me wrong. This is another excellent Gorillaz album, but I wonder if I just feel that way because I’m a fan of Blur’s later years.  Many of the Albarn-sung tracks sound like they could have fit on that band’s Think Tank, or Albarn’s other side project, The Good, The Bad & The Queen. Without the cartoon eccentricity Gorillaz are famous for, some of these tracks — like “Cloud of Unknowing” — are kind of a drag. Sure there’s more hip-hop and dance beats here than any Blur album, but this is by far Gorillaz’ darkest album yet.

**** (out of five stars)

Broken Bells – Broken Bells It took only one listen of lead single “The High Road” to make me voracious to hear more from this collaboration of The Shins’ James Mercer and Danger Mouse, the guy who managed to mash the Beatles’ White Album with Jay-Z’s Black Album. I even made the song my ring tone.

Now that the full album is out, did Broken Bells live up to their promise? For the most part, yes. It’s not as revolutionary as the single led me to believe (you could probably mistake this for a slightly more experimental Shins album). But it’s pretty strong the whole way through, mixing Mercer’s meloncholy well with Danger Mouse’s tight beats and creative production. Most importantly, I’m still left wanting to hear more. 

**** (out of five stars)

Yeasayer – Odd Blood The band told Spin Magazine recently that they picked the name Yeasayer in part because it sounded like a cult. With their new album Odd Blood, this band is going to pick up quite a following.

It’s difficult to make a convincing case on paper for this band. Odd Blood is full of ’80s synth and Peter Gabriel vocals. But Yeasayer’s relentless enthusiasm makes it all sound new and uncharted  — kind of like what MGMT did for the Beegees. And c’mon, even Kanye talked this band up on his blog. He’s still got street cred, right?

Whatever, probably the biggest compliment I can give this band is that after 10+ listens, the songs still sound fresh. You can’t say “Nay” to that. 

***** (out of five stars)

Fionn Regan – The Shadow of an Empire On his first album, The End of History, this talented young Irish singer/songwriter mixed earnest folk vocals with intricate acoustic guitar melodies. The best songs, like the superb “Hunters Map,” had the kind of quiet power that could transport you to another place. Overall though, History was a trifle inconsistent and long-winded.

On Shadow of an Empire, Regan comes back with the kind of ramshackle punch that the Libertines used to do so well. But while Shadow has got more muscle, only a couple songs stand out: “Genocide Matinee” and “Violent Demeanour.” Regan clearly has range and songwriting skill, but you can’t help but feel he hasn’t reached his full potential. Here’s hoping third time’s the charm.

*** (out of five stars)

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