London's recalling

by Jim Pinckney / 30 December, 2006
This supergroup is an inspired meeting of musical minds.

From his apprenticeship as a 90s Britpop loudmouth in Blur through to the blistering postmodern pop genius of his "virtual band" the Gorillaz, with excursions into African and other elsewhere music along the way, Damon Albarn has proven himself to be somewhat the renaissance man.

Now with the Good, the Bad and the Queen he has embarked on a project that began as a solo album and developed into a bizarre version of what used to be called a supergroup. Though the tag is inevitable, it doesn't really do the outfit justice, as this is an inspired meeting of musical minds rather than the usual vehicle for ego overload and unnecessary extravagance. Having said that, if you were to rate this as a supergroup, it's a pretty spectacular combo.

Paul Simonon couldn't be persuaded to pick up his bass for the Clash's inauguration into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, but Albarn has somehow coaxed the 50-year-old punk-rock icon away from his easel and back to the stage. Tony Allen, the 66-year-old Nigerian rhythm machine who was at the heart of Fela Kuti's ferocious afrobeat revolution and is rated by Brian Eno as "perhaps the greatest drummer that ever lived", completes the dynamite rhythm section.

Closer to Albarn's age group, Simon Tong, the ex-Verve guitarist, has previously performed for Blur and the Gorillaz and is more than capable of holding his own in this rare and esteemed company. Completing the party is Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, fresh from global domination with his Gnarls Barkley project.

It's a curious and distinctive strand of Anglo urban folk that this unlikely crew have staked as their claim, and over the course of a dozen predominantly brief missives they achieve their mission, and then some. Although it certainly isn't short of its noodling factor and a surreptitious skank in places that you might not expect, there is tight discipline and a sense of economy throughout. Only towards the end of the album with the meandering majesty of "Three Changes", which chaotically breaks down to tinny bossa nova at its core, or the epic dirge of the seven-minute title track, is there space for any moments of indulgence.

Lyrically (and graphically, with stunning artwork from Simonon), the focal point is London past and present, and it comes served up in a musical atmosphere as dense and evocative as a Dickensian fog coming off the Thames. The blistering single "Herculean" lives up to its title with a stirring choral finale concluding a song that begins by celebrating ghosts "standing by the old canal, by the gasworks". With a knowing wink to Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town", it's the instant hit of the record, but there are plenty of other strong contenders, like the twisted confectionery of "Northern Whale" or the Clash-leaning "Kingdom of Doom".

Odd elements and motifs reappear - like Albarn's chopsticks-style piano, a fair quota of whistling and impressive use of a small string section - but it all works, rather gloriously, and against the odds it feels like a genuine band rather than just a contrived assembly of components.

Producer Burton, whose adventurous pop sensibilities seem to become more focused and unimpeachable with every release, has done a sterling job of picking and programming the songs, as well as making it sound warm, impressive and natural. Far, far away from being a vanity project, The Good, the Bad and the Queen is a thoroughly essential, unrepentantly English album, and the first great record of 2007.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE QUEEN, the Good, the Bad and the Queen (EMI)

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