Call it a superficial gimmick if you want, but I happen to believe that Damon Albarn’s decision to man his much-beloved Gorillaz with cartoon characters was a savvy artistic decision. His format relies on the amalgamation of well-known talent (Danger Mouse, Snoop Dogg) as much as of eclectic pop textures, so without some sort of strong identity to bring it all together, the contributors’ force of personality is bound to mutiny the whole thing. I mean, was Wings ever NOT that group Paul was in after the Beatles? Anyway, the benefit of pretending that cartoons were behind Gorillaz’ music is that nothing of their sound would seem inconsistent, the same way we accept that Wile E. Coyote survived all those falls and anvil-related trauma. So, while envisioning the choir in “Tender” from Albarn’s old band Blur’s 13 may have contributed to that album feeling like a mixtape, the nearly identical sound on the title track of Gorillaz’ Demon Days seems hardly out of the ordinary.
Major Lazer, with its eye-popping roster of collaborators, has done well to adopt Albarn’s model. The brainchild of London’s Switch and Philadelphia’s insanely prolific Diplo, the project boasts an eye-popping roster of vocalists (Santigold, Amanda Blank, Jamaican star Mr. Vegas, and the one and only M.I.A), but by centering (however vaguely) on the story of a hard-partying, hoverboarding, zombie-fighting Rastafarian, Major Lazer develops a singular vision despite its big names. With its gonzo B-movie sensibilities, Major Lazer’s first album, last year’s Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do, recalled the crazed sci-fi of Kool Keith and Dan the Automator’s Dr. Octagonecologyst, and the superhero pastiche of Madlib and MF Doom’s Madvillainy. Also, like those albums, it stuck to a sound — a ferocious blend of dancehall’s oompa horns and military snares and funk Carioca’s spare, authoritative beats — so a feeling of cohesion wasn’t necessarily such a difficult task.
Now, with their two-new-songs-and-three-remixes EP Lazers Never Die, Major Lazer takes advantage of that second perk I mentioned: even when tracks from Guns are made to sound nothing like dancehall, we can still accept them as the work of our dreadlocked hero, as part of the sound we could hereafter associate with Major Lazer. As a result, Lazers Never Die is much closer to a legitimate artistic statement than most stopgap releases ever are.
Closer, but not exactly there. The first two tracks are two-for-two. Opener “Sound of Siren”, which has been setting the blogosphere aflame for several months now already, is a stark banger featuring M.I.A. and Busy Signal. Its paranoid, post-apocalyptic urgency recalls the better tracks from M.I.A.’s Arular, and actually lends some gravitas to the guerrilla warrior narrative of Major Lazer. By contrast, Guns was a bit more light-hearted, more likely to describe the pleasures of “Mary Jane” than the terror of running from the cops. “Good Enuff” is bittersweet girl-boy reggae, soaked in the dub of “Cash Flow” from Guns to lovely effect.
Then there are the remixes, which are a bit spottier. The rave-rap march of “Bruk Out” gets the electro-house treatment, which essentially does what any club DJ would do anyway — and which is boring and redundant, and, at double the length of the original, much too long. “Can’t Stop Now” counterpoints Mr. Vegas’ love-lorn serenade with ratatat rhythms and the Twista-like speed-rap of a certain Azealia Banks. The remix has the effect of ambient dubstep, sort of: as if fragments of the original were floating in and out of a darker song, rather than the other way around, and the darkness warps the original’s wistfulness and makes it seem perverse. It’s not as profound an effect as all that, but it approaches it, and sounds great as it goes.
But the best is saved for last. Thom Yorke’s remix of Guns closer “Jump Up” is a complete reimagining, achieved with the addition of warm, subdued keyboards. Yorke starts mellow, and heats up slowly, never quit getting to a boil but building the whole way through. On his own, he could add the song to any Kompakt (Gui Boratto, the Field) compilation and it would fit right in. With the raucous dance-off of the original song, though, his contribution adds color and melody without turning it into pop, exactly. Go figure, that Yorke would know exactly how to handle “Jump Up” – its cheering children repeat a similar effect from “15 Steps”, Yorke’s old band Radiohead’s left-field allusion to funk Carioca.
You could even say Thom Yorke’s “Jump Up” remix is to “15 Steps” what “Demon Days” was to “Tender”. It brings Lazers Never Die together as a conceptual whole, closing out a narrative arc that’s not really there but feels like it is. Not everything on this EP is stellar material, but the five tracks together are greater than the sum of their parts, because they come across as a murkier, more varied rewrite of Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do. With any luck, this is a sign of things to come, and not simply an experimental lark.