British all-star group provides all-star album
Jan. 19, 2007
First it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, then the Sex Pistols, then Oasis and then newcomers including Arctic Monkeys. Sometimes it seems like the so-called British invasion has never ended. Americans might not play cricket or spell "color" with a "u," but it seems even the most British of bands can find success in this country. The Good, The Bad and The Queen is no exception. Its self-titled debut is another album that continues a long tradition of British bands writing songs and albums about England.
Damon Albarn, frontman of Blur and the mind behind Gorillaz, fronts the all-star line-up as singer and principal lyricist. Paul Simonon, the bassist for punk legends the Clash, joins him on bass (obviously). The band's two other members are no less distinguished — Simon Tong played guitar for Britpop heavyweights the Verve, and Tony Allen played drums for Afro-beat pioneer and legend Fela Kuti. Add producer Danger Mouse, of The Grey Album and Gnarls Barkley fame, behind the controls and The Good, The Bad and The Queen is definitely a band with a pedigree.
Folksy melodies on songs including album-opener "History Song" are layered over ska-tinged bass lines and electronic bleeps and bloops that would make Radiohead proud. The result is an album that effortlessly flows from one song that has vaguely sinister elements to the next.
Its lyrical content deftly touches on the theme of life in modern day England. This is no surprise considering The Good, The Bad and The Queen includes two members from bands that produced classic albums — London Calling (The Clash) and Parklife (Blur) — about exactly that.
Blur did it with silly humor (or should that be humour?) and satire while the Clash did it with sharply honed aggression and politics. But here, Albarn and company take a more pensive approach, recalling aspects of Radiohead and certain Gorillaz songs. But one of the things that makes The Good, The Bad and The Queen most listenworthy is that it blends recognizable elements from each member's previous musical endeavors into its own cohesive sound. Albarn's Britpop harmonies, Simonon's reggae-influenced bass lines, Allen's frenzied drumming, Tong's psychedelic guitar playing and Danger Mouse's quirky aesthetic are all present and accounted for.
Song titles like "Kingdom of Doom" make it seem as though the title of Blur's 1993 album Modern Life Is Rubbish still applies for Albarn. He sums up his feelings in "Three Changes," a moody track with frenetic drumming by Allen and a jazzy bass line by Simonon, which includes lyrics like "Today is dull and mild/ On a stroppy little island/ Of mixed up people."
This isn't to say the album is overwhelmingly depressing. There is definitely a thread of guarded optimism running throughout. The first single, "Herculean," proclaims "That it all gets better when life is straight/ It's bigger than you and the welfare state/ And we will keep singing it's not too late/ For you." This dichotomy also occurs in the music itself, on songs including "80s Life," in which Albarn sings about not wanting to "Live in a war/ That's got no end in our time," while soaring backing vocal harmonies and gentle guitar work provide a point of contrast to his lyrics.
At its best, the album is deliciously gloomy and morose. At its worst, it is, well, "dull and mild," to borrow Albarn's turn of phrase.
Whether The Good, The Bad and The Queen's cynical, yet hopeful, view of England will resonate as much as the social commentary of the Clash, Blur or even of bands including the Kinks and the Jam is unknown, but clearly, this band has brought together the best men for the job.