Everyone's lasting memory of the Gorillaz project is probably the animated video for 'Clint Eastwood'; failing that, it's that the band is made up of four comic book/cartoon characters who serve as fronts for the brains behind the scenes. The danger of this project was always that style would overtake substance, and perhaps that was even the point: a kind of meta-pop band who ironically commented on the "manufactured" pop and boy bands of the time. Parody by way of extreme-ism, literally being a made up and manufactured band. That Gorillaz's 2005 album, Demon Days, didn't have the same impact and popularity as the debut says something about whether it was style carrying the band, I suppose.
My first distinct recollection of Gorillaz doesn't come from the 'Clint Eastwood' video. Instead, it comes from the songs 'Double Bass' and 'Sound Check (Gravity).' Over the summer of 2001, I worked for my local school system, cleaning the building and doing general maintenance work at the elementary school a few miles down the road from my parents' house (where I lived at the time). One of my co-workers had a computer on a rolling cart that he hauled around as he worked so he could listen to music. At the time the most concrete memory I had was that he owned all of the pre-fame Kid Rock albums, but now I remember how he didn't have the entire Gorillaz album, just the two aforementioned tracks. Both the Kid Rock thing and that are kind of weird, but that's not the point. The point is that, at the time, I somehow didn't connect them to 'Clint Eastwood', and certainly not to Damon Albarn's main band, Blur, who I loved thanks to Parklife and 13.
I bring this up because, when I listen to Gorillaz today, I'm struck by just how good the album is, and how I love it for the songs that weren't singles. Damon Albarn had already trodden a more experimental direction with Blur starting with their self titled album and the increased emphasis of guitarist Graham Coxon's contributions to the band, but the Gorillaz project saw him adding hip hop, dub/reggae, and even some latin/world music to his palette, all things born out by Blur's Think Tank album. And whatever else Albarn has been up to this decade that I didn't follow. However, due to the annoying "fake animated band" conceit, it's tough to know who's responsible for what as far as the direction of the music on Gorillaz. Dan 'The Automator' Nakamura was heavily involved, and anyone who's listened to the first Dr. Octagon album will see how crucial his production, samples, and beats can be to the greatness of an album.
But I digress. While the two songs that feature rapper Del Tha Funkee Homosapien steal the show, at least as far as most people's lasting impressions are concerned, it's the other stuff that grabs me when I listen to it now. 'Double Bass' and 'Sound Check (Gravity)' absolutely hold up, while a late album deep cut like 'Slow Country' is one of the major reasons I feel like I'm re-discovering this release. 'Slow Country' has got this weird tropical vibe to it, complete with wind synth whoosh sounds; Albarn's echoed vocals sound like a much more oblique and minimalist version of his musings on city and suburban life from Blur's mid 90s Britpop era. And while 'Left Hand Suzuki Method' is typical of overblown non-album bonus tracks from this period (in that it's too long and a forgettable mess), 'Dracula' is actually so good that I wish it was officially considered part of the album. I never thought that "the dude from Blur singing on a dub reggae track" could be good, but I guess I'd be wrong.
Though the willfully opaque nature of who did exactly what on which songs frustrates me a bit, it's actually the faceless nature of this collaboration that makes it so successful and work together even when it dips into a genre exercise with an obvious guest star, like on 'Latin Simone.' Collaborations either seem to obviously tilt to one side of the equation or become complete crap, so it's refreshing to see one that manages to be really good and not skew far toward one genre or collaborator's style. Sure, that's obviously Damon Albarn doing most of the singing, and that's obviously Del doing the rapping, but the rest is kind of a mystery, and because of that, Gorillaz is stronger and more unified for it. I keep talking about Albarn all the time, but I don't think of this as "his" band. It's as much artist/illustrator Jamie Hewlett's band, or Dan 'The Automator' Nakamura's band. In some perverse way, I almost wish they had never revealed who was behind Gorillaz, like a modern day Residents.
I'm pretty sure I finally bought Gorillaz during the summer of '01, and it was an album that completely defined the pre-9/11 innocence of my high school days. For whatever reason, I don't think I'd listened to it for a good five years until I saw a news story a couple weeks ago about the eventual next Gorillaz album. Perhaps because it took them so long to release another album, I thought of Gorillaz as a disposable pop album and a novelty at best. But time has a way of changing things, and I would go so far as to say that I like this album more, today, than I did in its hey-day. So yes, there was some substance behind all that flashy style, and it's what will keep Gorillaz not just a musical curio, but a worthy one at that.