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Damon Albarn

+ {Mali Music} + {The Good, The Bad & The Queen} + {DRC Music} + {Rocket Juice & The Moon} + {Africa Express}

Not content with fronting two of England’s most high profile acts in Britpop pioneers BLUR and “virtual” post-millennium hip-hoppers GORILLAZ, singer/songwriter/multi-musician DAMON ALBARN also split his time as a collaborative soundtrack artist, sponsor of various African/world music projects (from MALI MUSIC to DRC MUSIC), leader of supergroup The GOOD, THE BAD & THE QUEEN (in 2006/7) and of course a solo act in his own right.
Born 23rd March 1968, Whitechapel, London, Damon was raised by his Quaker parents (his dad Keith was manager of SOFT MACHINE) in Leytonstone, before they uprooted to Colchester. Taking his school-ground friendship with guitarist GRAHAM COXON beyond post-education and into shoegazing combo Seymour, the turn of the 90s was a pivotal one for Damon as the quartet inked a deal with E.M.I.’s Food subsidiary and became BLUR.
Leaders of the Brit-pop scene for a decade, alongside the likes of rivals OASIS, PULP, SUEDE, et al, Colchester’s finest delivered a raft of excellent hit singles from several classy albums, including their critical peaks `Modern Life Is Rubbish’ (1993) and `Parklife’ (1994). Almost unforgiveable was the group’s electro-pop reformation in 2003; comeback set `Think Tank’ more akin to Damon’s new interests in minimalist world music and hip-hop.
The end of the century – ironically, the name of a BLUR hit in ’94 – saw pin-up boy DAMON ALBARN move into film soundtrack territory, all three ventures as foil to other artists. While a starring role in Antonia Bird’s 1997 crime feature, Face (alongside Ray Winstone and Robert Carlyle), was in keeping with Damon’s retro-Brit preoccupations, his first scoring project was the same director’s controversial cannibal tale, RAVENOUS (1999) {*6}. Created in collaboration with MICHAEL NYMAN of all people, his startlingly original and unsettling soundtrack suggested RANDY NEWMAN-esque Americana refracted through a particularly freakish hall of mirrors. The scene was set in the first two tracks by using only 19th Century instruments and uncomplicated tunes which would have been around in the period. The modern contrasts with the old creating a macabre effect in keeping with the gruesome storyline.
His subsequent solo score for the predominantly Various Artists OST to fact-based Irish gangster pic, ORDINARY DECENT CRIMINAL (1999) {*5}, was more conventionally rootsy, as both projects were at least vaguely similar in spirit to the pre-millennial Blur album, `13’.
Here on `ODC’, Albarn opens with and closes with two tracks; one brassy short cut `Chase After Gallery’, coming somewhere in between. `One Day At A Time’ (…“Sweet Jesus”) is his trip-hop opening salvo augmented by MASSIVE ATTACK’s 3D, a BETA BAND-like dirge partly inspired from the Lena Martell gospel chart-topper from the mid-70s, while it also features star of the movie, Kevin Spacey, on Irish-accented dialogue and mirror-crooning. `Kevin On A Motorbike’ starts a bit like RONI SIZE, although the techno-blues of MOBY possibly won out at the end of the day. Track No.9, `Bank Job’, was Damon’s most cinematic piece from the film, while he took a hybrid of BLUR gospel-ish ballads `Tender’ and `The Universal’ to new heights with OST encore, `Dying Isn’t Easy’.
More indicative of ALBARN’s future direction was his soundtrack to Icelandic black comedy, 101 REYKJAVIK (2001), scored in collaboration with inimitable ex-SUGARCUBES man, Einar Orn Benediktsson. Resolutely digital and evocatively dub-heavy (even if it did hark back to its author’s classic-ish leanings with a gaudy reprise of The KINKS’ `Lola’) with liberal use of ALBARN’s beloved melodica, the record segued nicely into his cinematic, virtual side-project, GORILLAZ, not to mention his African dalliances, which themselves culminated in a melodica-blowing appearance at the 2004 “Festival In The Desert” near Timbuktu in Mali. In 2002, Damon struck up a musical partnership with Malian musicians Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabate and their friends (including Ko Kan Ko Sata), delivering MALI MUSIC (2002) {*7} to an unsuspecting British public still awaiting something new from BLUR.
Instigated as an idea in ’98 by Damon and Tank Girl comic creator Jamie Hewlett, GORILLAZ were something different for bored teenagers to sink their teeth into. 2001’s eponymous outing was fuelled by top UK hits such as `Clint Eastwood’ and `19-2000’, while squeezed somewhere in between the duo’s next venture `Demon Days’ (2005), came ALBARN’s very limited and low-key solo debut proper, the collectable double-disc (10”) DEMOCRAZY (2003) {*3}.
Touted at first as Damon’s new mid-00s solo project, indie-rock supergroup The GOOD, THE BAD & THE QUEEN had all the right credentials to make it big. Not particularly enamoured by classicist score-smith ENNIO MORRICONE’s similarly-titled Spaghetti Western film from the 60s, but more in line with its makeshift collaborators by way of former CLASH bassist Paul Simonon, VERVE guitarist/keyboard-player Simon Tong and Nigerian sticksman Tony Allen, the Danger Mouse-produced “song cycle” album (THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE QUEEN (2007) {*7}) took Damon once again into the higher reaches of the UK charts (Top 50 in America). Tracks `Herculean’, `Kingdom Of Doom’ and `Green Fields’ were turned into hit singles, but the unit was short-lived; Tong and Simonon following ALBARN into GORILLAZ’ trippy third solo set, `Plastic Beach’ (2010), while Allen and the RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS’ enigmatic bassist Flea subsequently joined Damon’s next musical collective, ROCKET JUICE & THE MOON.
Damon’s fixation with dub and Afro-pop was well established in his previous producer-friendly ensemble DRC MUSIC; KINSHASA ONE TWO (2011) {*6} disguised under a raft of top session knob-twiddlers including Dan The Automator (aka “Kool” Keith Thornton), Actress (aka Darren Cunningham), XL Recordings boss Richard Russell, et al, a sort of Congolese update of his Malian music moves from nearly a decade previously.
The eponymous ROCKET JUICE & THE MOON (2012) {*6} presented a funkier, organic option that also introduced guest stars from ERYKAH BADU, rapper Thundercat plus Fatou Diawara and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Released only a matter of months later in May 2012, ALBARN’s first “official” debut set, DR DEE {*6} was finally unleashed. Sadly, if one was looking for a fusion of BLUR and GORILLAZ, then one would be seriously disappointed with this occult opera, a story about the 16th century mathematician and advisor to Elizabeth I, John Dee. That’s not to say the classical/folk diversion was without merit (`Apple Carts’ was almost twee), but it’s more akin to Damon’s century-dividing soundtrack work with NYMAN (example tracks `The Moon Exalted’, `Watching The Fire That Waltzed Away’ and `Edward Kelley’). Certainly an album to work at while BLUR get into gear for another contemporary pop stab some time later in the year.
This looked ever so unlikely when the man was next seen propping up the production boards (with XL boss Richard Russell) on the legendary soul man BOBBY WOMACK’s comeback set, `The Bravest Man In The Universe’ (2012).
Russell was again behind the former Brit-pop genius on his debut album “proper”, EVERYDAY ROBOTS (2014) {*8}. Concerned with the hollow aspects of human nature since mobile “smart” phones have run – or ruined – man’s inability to connect with his fellow man/woman, ALBARN strikes a chord for a dystopian-bound human race. Somehow, it worked on many levels, from the joyous and upbeat `Mr Tembo’ (featuring the Pentecostal City Mission Church Choir) and the ENO-injected gospel sing-a-long encore, `Heavy Seas Of Love’, to the sample-friendly, but skeletal downbeat remainder; including `Hostiles’. Apart from the soulful centrepiece, `Lonely Press Play’, highlight was unquestionably Damon’s modern-day classic, the title track `Everyday Robots’, complete with a sample of RICHARD BUCKLEY’s “Cabenza de Gasca” and also its haunting, squeaky-swing rhythm. While BATS FOR LASHES girl Natasha Khan sang duet on `The Selfish Giant’, the measured underscore of `The History Of A Cheating Heart’ gave off an air of his daddy’s chum, ROBERT WYATT. In the words of Dave Gorman: “Modern Life Is Goodish”.
On the back of BLUR’s “Magic Whip” album in 2015, Damon reunited with Jamie Hewlett (and guests) for GORILLAZ sets, “Humanz” (2017) and “The Now Now” (2018). Probably no one was expecting, with the exception of Messrs ALBARN, Simonon, Tong and Allen, a sophomore set from The GOOD, THE BAD & THE QUEEN, but just as 2018 was virtually closing up shop, MERRIE LAND {*8}. Nigh on a dozen years since GBQ’s debut effort, this carnival of quirky post-Brexit slides; structured a la tongue-in-cheek gallows humour, proved Damon and Co (alongside producer Tony Visconti) had their finger on the political pulse. From the sardonic title track and the “Rawlinson End”-style windy-pops of `Gun To The Head’, Albarn was waxing lyrical about the Lemmingmania fate approaching us all post-29th March. It all gets a tad spooky thereafter on `Nineteen Seventeen’, `The Great Fire’, `Lady Boston’, `Drifters & Trawlers’, `The Last Man To Leave’ et al; and one senses rollercoaster-ride prophet Damon was pessimistic to be optimistic, as they say – “bench-ParkLife” anyone?
Co-founded in 2006 by Damon and journalist Ian Birrell in order to re-address the lack of African acts at “Live 8”, the cross-cultural AFRICA EXPRESS was another side-line for the GORILLAZ man to coordinate and facilitate. Among its brethren were big names such as ADRIAN SHERWOOD, DON LETTS, BRIAN ENO, FEMI KUTI, DE LA SOUL, FATBOY SLIM, BILLY BRAGG, Bryce Dessner and a plethora of lesser-known African and Middle East musicians. On the back of a handful of “presentation” CDs from 2009 onwards, the collective finally found a bit of recognition in the summer of 2019 when “EGOLI” emerged on the continent. Damon, it seemed, was happy to take a back seat on this occasion.
© MC Strong BG/JZ-LCS // rev-up May2012-Sep2019

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