The concept of cartoon bands has always fascinated me. You can't ask for a better marriage between visual and audio than sharp animation and sharp music. Of course, the music has sometimes been the stumbling block. Early attempts at the cartoon band concept generally lacked music that reflected the popular music of the time accurately. It took a posse of cartoon-loving alt-rockers to do the songs of early cartoon bands justice on the excellent 1995 compilation Saturday Morning: Cartoons' Greatest Hits. Still, the Archies were probably the blueprint for numerous new wave bands (most notably the B-52s), while Josie and the Pussycats were the cat's pajamas for a generation of future female rockers (examples: Juliana Hatfield, Tanya Donnelly, Louise Post), not to mention the subject of fantasy for their male counterparts (remember that old chestnut about guys being attracted to Betty Rubble despite her animated status?). Then you had Daria's Mystic Spyral, a band that never really played much actual music, though they did manage the unforgettable "Freakin' Friends", complete with music video.
Fast forward to the year 2001 and the creation of Gorillaz by Blur singer Damon Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett. Gorillaz' music is a perfect amalgam of rock, hip-hop, electronica, Latin, and other musical styles currently popular with teen (and adult) listeners. Listening to their debut album release, you couldn't escape the conclusion that the music was the driving force behind the creation of the group and that it would ultimately determine their success or failure. Of course, the cartoon band (which we should probably refer to as a "virtual band". It is the 21st Century, after all) is the perfect medium for the Web, which record company EMI used to provide extensive marketing for the group that would otherwise have been very difficult and expensive. EMI, as a standalone record label, finds it difficult to cross-market its releases the way conglomerates such as AOL Time Warner and BMG Music Group do. For these mega-companies, musical artists can be marketed in company-owned publications, make appearances on company-owned television programs, and gain free marketing and publicity on company-owned websites. EMI has the opportunity to do this with Gorillaz since the group is probably going to appear in a feature film, on the Cartoon Network, and in the stores as merchandising opportunities take off.
Now we have G-Sides, a compilation of new tracks, rarities, and remixes originally done for the Japanese market, now released here, no doubt to keep the Gorillaz in our minds while the marketing kicks in. Four of the nine tracks on the disc are remixes, actually. There is the Soul Child Remix of "19-2000" (a slick and cool song to begin with) that emphasizes the original track's beat and makes the song fresh without really changing it all that much. Compare that to the Wiseguys House of Wisdom Remix, a piece of club-oriented dreck that plows on and on for seven minutes without really developing at all. It would be fine in a club or on a house-remix album, but considering that Gorillaz is a band with serious pop aspirations, it isn't something most fans are going to want to hear. "Latin Simone" is given an English language performance without disturbing the track's dubby bass, spacey piano, and Miles Davis-inspired muted trumpet flourishes. And "Clint Eastwood" is performed as a straight-ahead rap track, with fast, acrobatic rhyming and a complete absence of the zombified chorus (my favorite part, unfortunately, but it will be enjoyable for serious hip-hop fans).
That brings us to the new tracks. "The Sounder" is another serious hip-hop track featuring drummer Russel (and the bevy of spooky undead that live inside him), but about halfway through there's some heavy-duty synth bass that rocks the house. "Faust" is awesome, a minor key electronic noodle of a track that manages to recall both early meandering Kraftwerk and Air's Moon Safari. When the vocal enters, with about a minute to go, you are surprised, but fortunately it fits quite well with the established mood, so the track is, overall, completely successful. "Ghost Train" is a cool song with a Damon Albarn vocal that combines an industrial production-line electrobeat with some rock & roll distortion. It also samples Human League's "Sound of the Crowd" from their classic Dare album (quite funny since the group's pretty boy, 2-D, claims Philip Oakey as an influence). "Hip Albatross" is, well, something of a failed experiment, sounding like an outtake (one hopes) from an unsuccessful Radiohead session, though it does contain sampled dialogue from Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. The disc ends on a strong note with "12D3" which features acoustic guitar and acoustic piano, plus vocal harmonies that are actually warm and (wait for it) gospel-influenced. The song is a beautiful one, and it would be great if there are more interesting experiments like this on the group's next album.
Overall, there's nothing on G-Sides that stands out the way, say, "Clint Eastwood" or "19-2000" on the group's first album did, but taken collectively the new tracks here demonstrate the uniqueness of the Gorillaz sound and the vision shared by the group's creators and the musicians who bring it all to life. There's still a lot of life in these cartoons. Josie and the Pussycats should have had it so good.