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West London Calling

“Well, first I found out he lived two streets away from me — amazing coincidence!” Damon Albarn is munching his supper, talking over the phone from England. Between bites, he explains how he first hooked up with bassist Paul Simonon of the Clash to form their new supergroup, The Good, the Bad & the Queen. “Paul came down and he liked the stuff, and from that moment onwards, we were on the right path. And that resulted in this record.”

Albarn — erstwhile leader of Britpop icons Blur and alternative concept band Gorillaz — also recruited guitarist Simon Tong (the Verve, Gorillaz), Fela Kuti drum master Tony Allen and producer Danger Mouse (Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley, et al.). The result is a miraculously even-tempered presentation of beautifully moody — but not broody — tunes, evoking a trek from English music halls of lore down through punk rock, over to the Afrobeat and skanky dub styles of the ’60s and ’70s.

But before recording a note together, Albarn and Simonon sat and talked. Yeah, they talked about music and art and all that, but mostly they talked about their very special place of residence in West London. Particular aspects of the local history soon gave rise to a theme of sorts for the album, and it seems to have resonated well in England: The Good, the Bad and the Queen has topped the charts for weeks.

“The part we live in, North Kensington, generally doesn’t get much funding,” the affable, unassuming Simonon chimes in. “But what’s interesting, you’ve got a lot of different cultures pretty much on the fringes or within the area of Portobello. Everyone’s from different places, different religions, but it’s not ghettoized. Everybody sort of brushes past each other and seems to get on okay. And I think that’s quite healthy.”

“It’s a very colorful place,” Albarn says. “Quite mixed, diverse. It has all the classic social barriers and ghettos, but they seem to be in a kind of coexistent and fluid way. And it’s on top of a hill, so you’ve got sunrises and sunsets — it’s a good starting point for something about the country and its horizons.”

Making music ’cause it feels like the right thing to do, at a specific time and place: It’s an oddly unusual scheme that can produce results of depth and subtle splendor. Such is the case with The Good, the Bad and the Queen. It’s a charming little artifact whose lack of pomp and circumstance summons savory pictures of a town and a time perhaps not so unlike our own. Cheering sundown music, you could say.

Albarn felt this record needed at least two things: collaboration with truly sympathetic souls, and excellent bass playing. Simonon hadn’t been playing much bass since his Clash days, instead devoting his time to his passion for painting “and playing spaghetti-Western guitar over dub records.” But with Albarn, he found it easy to get back into the swing of bass — and found himself digging it.

“Well, it’s funny,” he says, “because about two months before I got the call from Damon, I had done a small show with Mick Jones, Bobby Gillespie [Primal Scream] and some other luminaries for a friend’s birthday party. I hadn’t played bass for a very long time, not in public, anyway, not on a record or anything. And I suppose I got a bit of a taste of it, you know?”

And then he found a great new mate in Albarn, a much younger artist with whom he nevertheless shared a lot of musical tastes and, even more, whose personal integrity Simonon was partial to.

“I quite admired the fact that Damon had turned down an invitation when Tony Blair was going into office,” says Simonon. “Blair invited all the pop stars and personalities of the day to come down to celebrate his entry into No. 10 Downing Street, and Damon sent a letter saying that he wasn’t gonna be going. It’s the sort of thing that I feel important, that maybe musicians shouldn’t find themselves too closely connected to politicians, especially if they’ve just been voted in, because you never know what their policies are and how things will go, and you’re all tied in with that by association.”

The Good, the Bad and the Queen — “a narrative of moods,” as Albarn tells it — is framed like a night’s bill of moderately rocked-up vaudeville, albeit somewhat charcoal-colored. Primarily built on a jam, “History Song” employs sparely plucked acoustic guitar over skeletal yet polyrhythmic drums, bass and organ to feel like something the Lee Perry of the late ’60s might have done. It’s an Afrobeat-tinged lullaby grappling with, and finally settling on, a state of mind. The amusing “80’s Life” is a dreamy doo-wopper, with sincere dip-dip-dip backing vocals, saved from sliding into Sha Na Na by Albarn’s gruff attempts at high notes.

 

“Kingdom of Doom” sticks in the brain with quarter-note piano and stuttering reggae-fied bass; on the wistful “Herculean,” electric keyboards, musical saw and violins flesh out Albarn’s steam-box piano-pumping. The band is deliciously unrushed, playing just this much and not a note more: The song lopes and skips lazily along, sparking a low flame, a gently forceful reminder of our humanity. “Behind the Sun” is just plain cool — an easy-skanking stroll down a sunset lane, taking in the sights, with a small string section as company. Things are a bit windswept and mysterious here, ’cause that’s just the way it is, and we like it this way.

Following the heady halcyon days of Britpop blazers Blur (who are in fact still extant), Albarn has slashed a far-reaching course that most famously includes his artistic conception and songwriting for Gorillaz; his 2002 solo album Mali Music, recorded with African musicians, including kora player Toumani Diabate; and his own record label, Honest Jon’s, which seeks out musical curios from all points non-Western. Albarn’s acutely aware of the ugly heads that rear when European or American pop musicians attempt to integrate music from other cultures into their own, and prefers never to hear his label or new band associated with such a past-it term as “world music.”

“Someone from Ethiopia would consider the Beatles world music,” he grumbles.

While Albarn seems to have strayed quite far from his pop roots — into African music, hip-hop, electro rock — the whys and wherefores don’t concern him.

“It was a part of the process for me, really,” he says, a little impatiently. “If I had taken on the motives of it, it would’ve [laughs] . . . you know what I mean? I just felt like I had much better stuff to do after Blur.”

Yet Albarn’s vision of a cross-culturally relevant sound for this new album required a special magic that he found, lo and behold, virtually right next door in London: Simonon’s dub-syncopated spatial simplicity was crucial for the songs he’d written.

“It had a lot to do with the bass,” says Albarn. “It needed someone who was sort of intelligent in certain ways — you know, the balance between [drummer] Tony and Paul is key to this record working.”

“I dunno,” says Simonon, “it works very well with Tony, because he plays some very complex patterns, and maybe a bass player that took another approach might sound a bit too messy, or it might become something else. I like to keep it quite simple, be a rhythm player, like the way people dance at reggae concerts, or like the blues bands’ approach to bass playing, where you don’t tend to play every note possible.”

“When Paul came in,” says Allen, “then we said yes, okay, that’s what we wanted, because this album is so delicate, you know? Delicate. It just needs some kind of simplicity. Simplicity is not easy.”

The revered drummer’s work — perhaps a surprise to those who know only the pumping multicyclical funk he brought to Fela Kuti’s bands — is an ideal fit for Albarn’s schoolboyish rock reveries, and at its spiritual core not so far removed.

“I respect musicians who want to play music,” says Allen. “And it’s not everybody that’s a musician. I go play with everybody. I’m interested in what they’re bringing.”

Specific to London but reverberating worldwide, The Good, the Bad and the Queen is an example of the good things that can happen when four musical friends meet to hang out and drink tea and shoot the breeze, then agree to make some kind of piquant sound together that might paint a pleasing scene of life as viewed from the top of their hill. No muss, no fuss, just music, deeply felt and memorable.

“Yeah, it’s great, it’s really good,” says Simonon. “We’ve got a really good team of people, and everyone gets on well, and there’s no stressful maintenance with anybody flippin’ their lid or anything.”

That the faithful have flocked is what Albarn finds best of all. “That’s the biggest success we’ve had with this record. It’s showing some long-term commitment on everyone’s behalf, to music, and to following music, and that can only be a good thing.”

After seven albums with Blur and two Top 20 albums with Gorillaz, you’d think the last thing Damon Albarn would need is another band. But despite its awkward name, it’s a fine first outing. GBQ mixes lyrics of weary English disappointment, sung as if Albarn were just crawling from bed, with odd keyboard riffs and Simon Tong’s sparse, ghostly guitar sound. But it’s Paul Simonon’s instantly recognizable bass lines that bring home the music’s sense of nostalgia. Simonon’s dubby, melodic riff in the opener, “History Song,” is echoed by Albarn’s moody carnival organ, setting the record’s melancholic tone, from which it rarely deviates. The result sounds something like the Kinks’ homilies on British life crossed with the Specials’ “Ghost Town.” The songs start gently, then build up layers of sound and swirling guitars. If they all start to sound a bit alike after a while, it still sounds like no other record out there. Unlike Gorillaz’ reliance on guest rappers and synthesizers, GBQ sounds like a real band, with a cohesive, understated stylishness. Danger Mouse craftily adds and removes different players and sounds from the mix, maybe shortchanging drummer Tony Allen a bit. In general, everyone plays it cool and low-key, so that it’s the sum, not the parts, that gets attention. If Gorillaz needs every song to sound unique and Blur needs to maintain some sort of rock cred, no such mandate applies here. It’s closer in feel to Albarn’s underrated 2002 album Mali Music, which found him shacking up with a dozen African musicians playing xylophone and melodica. If all GBQ did was lure Paul Simonon back into playing bass, it’d be a success. The fact that it’s become Albarn’s third simultaneously successful band is just icing on the cake.

 

—Mark Mauer


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