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Album Review: Gorillaz – The Fall [EMI]

Without a doubt, the hot gadget for 2010 was the iPad. Apple seems to have a monopoly lately on must-own items, and many a person will testify to the high quality and innovation the company consistently strives toward. Good for them, they’re probably doing more good than harm with their products, even if a tablet computer such as an iPad doesn’t have the processing power of your average laptop and has a tendency to break if you drop it from a countertop. Those things are inconsequential, because it’s cool, and the apps created for it allow you to do cool things. Case in point, whilst on tour in North America for 32 days this past fall, Damon Albarn wrote and composed 15 new Gorillaz songs using his iPad as the primary tool and musical instrument for the entire thing. It’s an impressive feat in and of itself, particularly because it sounds as good as a record made the traditional way, in a studio with industry standards such as ProTools or GarageBand. Released this past Christmas Day as a free download for fan club members ONLY (it only costs…$45 for a year’s subscription), “The Fall” is the official title of this iPad-made album. It may not boast the extensive list of guest stars and dramatic orchestral moments, but it remains a Gorillaz album through and through, with plenty of electro-pop style, found sound samples, and anchored by Albarn’s vocals.

Going purely by the song titles, you can tell that “The Fall” was a record composed on a journey across America. Over half the titles reference cities or states, and according to the album liner notes they were all recorded in those locations (see: “Shy-Town” in Chicago, “Amarillo” in Amarillo, etc). It’s not fair to say the actual music embodies the spirits of each city in which they were recorded, but that might be a product of how Damon Albarn views them anyways. If that’s the case, either the weather turning colder or perhaps road weariness may have affected Albarn’s mood as this isn’t the most upbeat Gorillaz record by any means. It’s often slow and lacks some of the pop edge that’s generated the cartoon band’s singles these past few years. The lack of any hip hop on this album is also an issue, though to be completely fair it’s not like you can get all your rap buddies to come out and record something with you as you tour around the country. In place of much of that are various natural sound samples that were recorded in locations around the country, from flipping around Texas radio stations to a forest and stream in Santa Fe to a loudspeaker announcement at an Los Angeles train station. Hell, the last track, “Seattle Yodel” is just a store-bought “yodeling pickle” (which you can buy online as well) held up to a microphone. At the very least these natural sounds make for something different outside of the iPad-crafted beats and the actual instruments that do pop up very infrequently. It’s definitely enough to leave you wondering whether you can call this even a legitimate Gorillaz album if Albarn is virtually the only person composing most of these songs.

While “The Fall” may have its issues, it may also be a little unfair to judge it harshly. First off, the method of distribution exclusively via the band’s fan club seems to suggest that this wasn’t intended to be heard by the masses or in the hope of spawning a radio hit. The only way non-fan club members can get their hands on this record is either by streaming it via the band’s website or pirating a copy. Secondly, writing and recording such an album over 32 days while in the middle of a tour that offers loads of distractions isn’t the way that 98% of bands operate, mostly out of fear what they come up with will be a crap product. Thirdly, to limit yourself and to base an entire record on what you can do with a bunch of iPad applications and a couple instruments is a challenge and a half in and of itself. The liner notes list all 20 iPad applications, along with the couple of actual instruments used to create everything you hear on “The Fall”, to the point where you could make this whole record over on your own should you be so inspired. That nobody has put out a legitimate iPad-recorded album prior to now really also shows how forward-thinking and brilliant Damon Albarn really is. While you were busy playing the latest edition of “Angry Birds” he was writing and composing music. Were he to allow himself more time and resources you can probably assume this record would have been a lot better and a lot more upbeat/fun. Eh, that’s probably the plan for the next, fully legitimate release from the band. So instead of being great “The Fall” is merely good, though better than might otherwise be expected. It’s not worth paying for a fan club membership just to own it, but if you really love Gorillaz and want to take advantage of more than just this exclusive music (a lithograph, webstore discount, ticket presales, streaming live videos, etc), perhaps the Sub Division is for you.

Join the Gorillaz fan club Sub Division and get a free download of “The Fall”

Stream “The Fall” at the official Gorillaz website

Live Friday: 6-18-10

So at this point the jig is up, right? When talking about Gorillaz, we’re more than fully aware that despite being represented by animated characters, there’s a full band of actual people behind them, right? I think that Daman Albarn, animator Jamie Hewlett and Co. are essentially done with presenting this project as an animated band in the sense that they used to do interviews in character rather than as themselves. Yes, the main entities of Murdoc, Noodle, 2D and Russel still exist when watching Gorillaz music videos or even in concert, but as far as promotional duties are concerned, I’ve seen more interviews with the actual people behind the cartoons than the actual cartoons themselves when it comes to the group’s latest (and best) album “Plastic Beach”. This is a stark change from the last two records, and it makes me happier to hear words coming out of Albarn’s mouth rather than a fictional character who may or may not be messing with us. That said, I’m very pleased with this week’s Live Friday, which features Gorillaz and also has a totally legitimate interview with Albarn and Hewlett about the project. What follows is an informative look into the band with the veil lifted, and many burning-ish questions are answered. But really, you may be more in this for the music. The band does 3 songs off “Plastic Beach”, all of which come off sounding much like their album versions. That tends to happen when you’ve got a lot of programmed beats, and all the work done by your guest stars has to be pre-recorded because they’re not out on tour with you. But Albarn does do his vocal stuff live, among other things, and there’s a live drummer, so if you’ve got no idea what Gorillaz sound like live (there’s an equally, if not more compelling visual component to their shows), this is a good indicator for you. And I can’t really remember the last time I heard Gorillaz do a radio session. All that said, this is a pretty great session of you like Gorillaz, and at the very least I suggest you download these songs.

Gorillaz, Live on WXPN 6-11-10:
Gorillaz – Stylo (Live on WXPN)
Gorillaz – On Melancholy Hill (Live on WXPN)
Gorillaz – Rhinestone Eyes (Live on WXPN)
Gorillaz – Clint Eastwood (Live on WXPN)

Stream the entire interview/session

Buy “Plastic Beach” from Amazon

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