Sunshine in a Bag
There’s something profoundly unsettling about D-Sides, the second B-sides/rarities compilation from the Gorillaz. No, it’s not filled with violent, disturbing, or bizarre content, quite the opposite, in fact. What’s so odd and peculiar about this album is simply how this set of song sketches and rejected ideas not only rivals its parent album (2005’s left-field hit Demon Days) in terms of quality, but, in many ways, it absolutely surpasses it.
This is both surprising and illogical at the same time. The centerpiece of Gorillaz, of course, is Damon Albarn, the golden-eared Brit bloke who (with fellow guitarist Graham Coxon) practically shaped Britpop into what it is today through his work with Blur. Though Americans may only know Blur through its stadium-thumping adrenaline anthem “Song 2”, those born and bred in the UK could sing you the chorus to songs like “Girls and Boys” and “Country House” at the drop of a hat.
Blur, right along with Oasis, their bitter rivals, helped usher in a new era of working-class rock to the perpetually pop-centric Britain during the ‘90s. They also revived one of rock & roll’s greatest traditions, the B-side. The Beatles’ couldn’t stop cranking them out, and more often-than-not they rivaled the quality of their fellow A-sides. When Blur, Oasis, Suede, and all those other grand guitar bands began popping up in the wake of Britpop, B-sides became an outlet for ideas that were too eccentric for general mainstream consumption. Sometimes, a B-side is merely good. Other times, it could flat-out change your life. When Oasis compiled all their best B-sides onto 1998’s The Masterplan, it was met with more than just a warm reception. It was considered a flat-out masterpiece. Gomez’s Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline and Suede’s Sci-Fi Lullabies were other great landmarks in the same vein.
Yet Damon Albarn never played that game during his time with Blur. Instead, he filtered in all his eccentricities right through his own band, leaving behind a trail of oddities like “Yuko & Hiro” and, well, the entirety of 13. With the Gorillaz, however, Albarn has to be held down in order to stop writing songs. D-Sides is thesecond
B-sides/rarities compilation from a group that has only released two studio albums to date. Yet where G-Sides felt like a cheap cash-in to the success of Gorillaz’ self-titled debut (which, at nine-tracks and less than 40 minutes, it definitely was), D-Sides is practically its own standalone studio effort. That’s the surprising part.
The illogical part is simply how Albarn has made leaps and bounds as a songwriter. When Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” set charts on both sides of the pond a-fire, it was obvious that Albarn was moving beyond the simple character portraits that had so populated his work with Blur. Many thought that this was due to his collaboration with that album’s producer, Dan the Automator. Yet when Albarn dropped Automator like a hot rock in order to scoop up Grey Album maestro Danger Mouse for Gorillaz’ sophomore effort, it was obvious that the cute cartoon characters on the album covers were all just a front for The Damon Albarn Traveling Hip-Hop Showcase. His 2003 collection of hotel-room demos, Democrazy, was a painful listen. It was ripe with half-baked ideas that may have well been written while fully baked. Thusly, we have a disconnect in that somewhere between Gorillaz’ two albums, Albarn totally stepped up his game. D-Sides is illogical because there is no basis as to where Albarn has received such a sudden burst of absolute genius.
D-Sides opens with “68 State”, a kinetic, slithering dance-song that sounds like it’s perfect for either late-night window-gazing while aboard a moving train or playing in the background while blasting up pixilated enemies in some star-ship shooter video game (though Albarn probably wouldn’t care either way). On the opposite end of the spectrum lies “We Are Happy Landfill”, in which we hear Damon Albarn throw some fuzz guitar over Fat Albert’s junkyard band. It’s a quirky, bizarre, and inexplicable song that is wrapped around a melody so unbelievably catchy that it’s almost impossible to believe that we’re hearing Albarn’s cigarette-soaked howl being screeched over it. As D-Sides continues on, you gradually come to realize that Albarn has never been this loose or funky before. It’s as if we have suddenly received an invite to his own private, drunken karaoke party, and you can’t help but cheer for him all evening long.
Given that the material for both albums was recorded at roughly the same time, it’s amazing how optimistic D-Sides sounds in comparison to the remarkably dour Demon Days. When Danger Mouse outfitted the song “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” with a choir and enough Beach Boys reverb to kill a horse on Demon Days, he lost the spirit of the original demo version that we now hear on D-Sides. The song is a slap-on-the-back anthem of stoner companionship that Danger Mouse tried to over-romanticize; in fact, it could be argued that the Demon version could be labeled as a flat-out misinterpretation. Albarn’s original version is just more open and less constrained by the need to utilize the big-studio price tag that Demon Days was afforded. It’s a remarkable comparison. Admittedly, D-Sides can’t be brimming with brilliance (as the fully-formed yet too-familiar reggae track “Bill Murray” illustrates), but when the hits outweigh the misses by such a large margin, its hard to complain.
One of the more unique aspects of D-Sides is how it’s bolstered by a bonus disc of remixes, which in itself is both a blessing and a curse. For example, there are three different versions of the Demon Days semi-dance song “Dare”, here reworked by the DFA, Soulwax, and Junior Sanchez. Though Junior Sanchez’s guitar-pop fury is certainly interesting and Soulwax’s attempt at recasting the song as Simian Mobile Disco banger is a worthy effort, neither can hold a candle to the minimalist funk-and-grind of the DFA. Their 12-minute re-imagining comes full loaded with funky basslines, canyon-like coos that can be heard faintly in the background, and a prescription for more cowbells.
It certainly a beat out Quiet Village’s too long reworking of “Kids with Guns” and Jamie T’s annoying take on the same. Hot Chip, meanwhile, downplays that song’s original exuberance to hit at something a bit more powerful (and just wait for that guitar to kick in). Then when Schtung recasts “Dirty Harry” as a traditional Chinese folk tune (complete with drum-machine backbeat), you know that all bets are off. These tracks don’t reach the same highs as D-Sides first disc, but they’re still a fascinating listen simply because the best songs here are remixes in the truest sense. The words are the same, but the song itself is transported to a whole new place.
D-Sides is a stunning example of how to handle one’s album rejects. Instead of outlines, snippets, or worse (the dreaded “studio banter”), we’re treated with full-fledged songs that range from the hauntingly beautiful “Hong Kong” to the “Macarena”-sampling “Rockit” (no, seriously). Even with some of the lesser tracks weighing the set down, it’s all worth sitting through if not just to make it to “Stop the Dams”, Albarn’s most nakedly emotional song to date. Filled with horns, twinkling keyboards, and Albarn’s own throaty call of “the sun will shine again”, it feels like it’s one of those songs that Albarn has spent his whole career working towards.
Somewhere along the way, he stopped being the good, respectable songwriter that we all know and love. Instead, he became a truly great one. And, in true Albarn fashion, he finally proves it to us through his second B-sides/rarities compilation for his animated, faux hip-hop group. Indeed, there’s something profoundly unsettling about D-Sides. It’s better than it has any right to be.
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