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Gorillaz, Kamasi Washington and The Orb Bring the Summer Jams

With summer in full swing it's time to take dip into the new release pool and see what we can find to fuel our BBQs and swim sessions with fresh new tunes. Luckily 2018 has remained a strong year for new music, here's a couple recent releases worth checking out:  

Gorillaz - The Now Now 

Gorillaz started out as a side project of Damon Albarn, front man for seminal Britpop band Blur, back around the turn of the millennium. Gorillaz has given Albarn a chance to explore more hip hop and electronic type music all wrapped in the high concept of a "virtual band" represented by a group of motley cartoon characters. If that all sounds like a bit too much to chew on, feel free to ignore it and just listen to the music, which over the years has provided some of the most forward looking pop songs of our time, including some huge hits early on like "Clint Eastwood" and "Feel Good Inc.". In fact, with Blur being broken up more often than not over the last 15 years, it's safe to say Gorillaz is now Albarn's main focus. The latest, The Now Now, comes hot on the heals of last year's Humanz. Unfortunately Humanz was a bit of a messy disappointment. Gorillaz have always relied on a constellation of big time guests to fuel the party, but on Humanz the features were so extensive that Albarn seemed to have been pushed off his own album, contributing vocals to only about half the tracks. At times it just seemed like it was a collection of random songs that just happened to have the word Gorillaz attached to them. Thankfully, The Now Now is about as much of a 180 from that overwrought failure as possible, with Albarn only sharing vocal duties on just one track, "Hollywood", which sees returning Gorillaz associates Jamie Principle and Snoop Dogg dropping in some well placed commentaries.                                                                                                                                                                                               

Because Albarn sings on every track, The Now Now never wanders into the generic pop territory that plagued Humanz. It feels most akin to the extremely low key release The Fall, which initially was a fan club free album, and was the only Gorillaz album completely devoid of guests. Having said that, this batch of songs is undoubtedly stronger with more memorable tunes and overall more of a completed work in comparison to The Fall, which seemed like demos or song ideas that were thrown into the wild before becoming fleshed out. Both albums were written on tour, and the loneliness of the hotel rooms in which their songs were birthed shows. While a good portion of the album is buoyantly funky with catchy hooks, melancholy themes keep cropping up. As on the bouncey opener "Humanity" where the chorus is "I don't want this isolation". Or on the gorgeous spacey ballad "Idaho", when Albarn makes a direct reference to touring with "There's a beauty on the road/ And everyday I look out of the bus/ Silver linings getting lost", effectively communicating the paradox of the rock star lifestyle of circling the world without ever having the time to really see it. Another highlight is the mostly instrumental "Lake Zurich", which rides a percussion laced beat with glossy, foot moving synth lines. While the album does lose some steam toward the end with some ballads, these are the type of songs that should gain depth upon repeated listening, and the Gorillaz catalog does have a tendency to increase in stature over time. At 40 minutes, the album is a bit scant to be considered along the lines of classics like Demon Days and the self titled first album, but it's a solid addition to the catalog and without a doubt a reassuring return to form.

Kamasi Washington - Heaven and Earth 

Jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington has been a busy guy, collaborating with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and Thundercat over the last couple years while putting out a stream of his own releases. It might be a bit hyperbolic to say that he is singlehandedly bringing jazz to a new generation of listeners, but it's honestly not far off from the truth. His music is both grounded in the tradition of free jazz experimentation of John Cotlrane and Miles Davis, while also incorporating modern flourishes to make it engaging for those who may not otherwise listen to jazz music. With his latest release, the gargantuan Heaven and Earth, he offers his most ambitious and fully realized album yet and it makes a serious bid for album of the year. At nearly two and a half hours this double disc set is a lot to digest and can be pretty challenging to wrap your mind around. But Washington does throw us a bone by divvying the music up into two sections, the extroverted Earth disc and then the more reflective Heaven disc. The Earth portion charges hard out of the gates with the hip hop flavored strings of "Fists of Fury" which also incorporates latin percussion, soul singers, spoken word passages and some wailing saxophone solos from Washington himself. And that's just the first track. From there we get a full on smorgasbord of moods and sounds, from freak deaky fusion synth solos, to more conventional jazz arrangements to the smooth soul of "Testify". He even tackles some retro futurist lounge with the vocoder vocals and synths of "Vi Lua Vi Sol".

But one thing that makes things a bit hard to pin down is the sheer scope of his vision, even on a track by track basis. Of the 15 tracks here, only two are under six minutes and over half breach the nine minute mark. Several of the compositions are full on multi-part pocket symphonies with movements that ebb and flow, many embellished with his trademark soaring choir vocals. We can safely apply the tag of unabashed maximalist to Washington's work, his primary aesthetic is to cram as much as he can into his songs, while still remaining artful. That's not a complaint in the least, but to really comprehend the picture Washington is painting will require some dedication. You can treat this music as background listening, and indeed it works well for this purpose as much jazz does, but when at the center of attention, it reveals new layers and dimensions that are worth the effort. It will be interesting to see what Washington's next move is, because a work of this of magnitude will be hard to top without going in a new direction. For now, we can keep diving into this treasure trove of creativity, where I expect that new pearls of genius and gems are still awaiting to be discovered. 

The Orb - No Sounds Are Out of Bounds

The Orb have been pioneers of modern electronic music since the late '80s when they began making music for the "chill out" rooms of raves as a rejoinder to the banging techno and house of the dance floors. At the center of an ever revolving cast of characters has been Alex Paterson, who's pedigree is so impeccable he even worked for the grandfather of ambient music Brian Eno's record label EG back in the day. Paterson not only brings the mellow sensibility to The Orb's music but also infuses it with no small amount of droll British humor, from winking Pink Floyd references to snatches of old TV shows and other cheeky samples that keep the mood light and fun for the most part. With No Sounds Are Out of Bounds, The Orb's 15th full length effort, the title is a fairly accurate description of the contents. Instead of a cohesive album journey like The Orb delivered early in their career, Paterson and his band of pranksters take more of a kitchen sink approach with the style and tempos widely varying from track to track. So we get a little bit of electropop on the opening "The End of the End", some more propulsive four on the floor business on "Pillow Fight @ Shag Mountain" to a straight up trip hop track on "Doughnuts Forever" that sounds like a lost '90s Ninja Tune classic. The Orb have long been known for incorporating reggae and dub type effects and production into electronic music, in fact they were one of the trail blazers in this respect, and that side of The Orb is heavily on display here.

If there's a central theme to NSAOOB, and I'm not sure there is, it's the dub basslines and rhythms that reoccur throughout the album and are employed most effectively on "Isle of Horns" and "Easy on the Onions". Also notable is the album's reliance on piano, whereas before their music favored heavily processed synths. The reverb slathered piano work that appears on several tracks makes for a bit more of a new age slant than usual. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does make the music a little more conventional sounding than the typical "out there" Orb fare. Which is really the only major problem with NSAOOB, it's all done very competently and with taste, but it does seem like some of The Orb's identity gets somewhat lost in the shuffling genres and shifting tones. However, the album does manage to hit its stride toward the end with "Ununited States" a contemplative trumpet and piano piece that wordlessly evokes a zeitgeist moment for these turbulent times. That's followed by the stretched out 15 minute ambient house excursion "Soul Planet". While it can't match up to the epic heights of past Orb opuses like "Blue Room" and "A Huge Evergrowing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Ultraworld", it provides a satisfying album ending trip that at least recalls those past glories. 

 

 

 



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