The Good The Bad The Queen

Feats of Strength: The Good, The Bad & The Queen

The supergroup The Good, The Bad & The Queen has largely been forgotten these days, even though it has been less than a decade since their debut album; if they are remembered at all, it is solely as an odd footnote, only to be invoked when listing the wide variety of projects that frontman Damon Albarn has pursued outside of his original work with Blur.  Damon was fresh off his recent work with Gorillaz, and at the time there were plenty of people that were intrigued to hear what the unconventional combination of Albarn with The Verve’s guitarist Simon Tong, The Clash’s bassist Paul Simonon, and Feta Kuli’s drummer Tony Allen would create.  Most listeners probably did not expect the hazy and melancholic depiction of modern London that the album didn’t turn out to be, and as a result the record was left to be a curiosity to be occasionally puzzled over when stumbled upon in a record store’s bargain basement bin.

This album came out during my time working in radio, and I remember being one of those eager fans who feverishly anticipated its release.  I ended up playing the single “Herculean” on our specialty music show for a few weeks, even though I found it to be a strange choice–though it had a nice groove and some pleasant melodic ideas, there was no real hook to draw in the listener.  I borrowed a copy of the album for personal use, and eventually found it to be agreeable study music since it didn’t force me to shift away my attention from my reading.

My opinion of the album radically shifted the first time I listened to it on my iPod.  Before, I only paid attention to the finger-picked acoustic guitar arpeggios of “History Song”, but now with the benefits of headphones I was greeted with a surprise in the first thirty seconds.  Hey, I can finally hear Paul Simonon’s contributions to the album!  When I was listening to the band either through the speakers in the studio or through my laptop, the mix was improperly balanced so that Simonon’s bass was swallowed up and barely noticeable.  The speakers were usually not a problem, but there was a sweet spot where the particular tone and level of the bass didn’t come through on this album as it did on others (or I had been lazy with my listening and only could pay attention when I had speakers jammed into my ears for the first time–either explanation works).  Simonon’s bass was a revelation, because it turned what I had previously perceived to be a gentle acoustic ballad into a dank, reggae song.  Listening closely to his part, I was reminded of his classic Clash contribution “The Guns of Brixton”* and marveled at how his dub influences totally changed the feel of the song.

Now that I was fully alerted to Simonon’s presence, my opinion of the album completely shifted.  His bass provided a captivating counterpoint to the album’s more prominent textures and melodies, and now that I could identify his bass lines, each song became much more compelling.  Simonon is able to accomplish a lot even with relatively simple lines, as in the title track–the bass grounds the song even as everything is falling apart around it, making the overall effort much more effective.

The Good, The Bad & The Queen is proof then of how the bass can subtly affect the perception of an album–or that you need to make sure to listen to a record through several sets of speakers before finalizing your impression.

*Oh hey look, there’s Paul Simonon on one of the greatest album covers of all time!  Remember that for all your future trivia needs.

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Over the Weekend (Oct. 20 Edition)

Who knew the middle of October would be filled with tons of new videos and news to report?

Thurston Moore’s new album The Best Day comes out tomorrow, but today he released the Halloween-appropriate video for the track “Speak to the Wild”.  Once you’ve collected yourself after watching it, be sure to check out his introspective interviews with The Guardian and Salon.  Of course, you may want to check out the NPR stream of the album as you do so, which we linked to last week.

However, the biggest news of the day is the confirmation that Sleater-Kinney is reuniting.  Early reports of their new box set that’s being released included a new single with the date “1/20/15”, and today the band confirmed that they will release their new album No Cities To Love on that date.  In the Line of Best Fit link you will also see the lyric video for new single “Bury Our Friends”, a tracklist, and a list of tour dates.  There’s no Portland date listed yet, but considering we witnessed their final show and their first “reunion” onstage with Pearl Jam, we can probably assume one will be added in the future.

Interpol released the video for El Pintor‘s “My Desire” today, and the grimy video also is appropriate for the season, filling the screen with plenty of the band’s trademark red and black.

Damon Albarn announced that he’s getting ready to get Gorillaz going again, with hopefully a 2016 release in the future, sure to please many fans of the side-project.  However, it’s another group of his that I’m personally more excited to hear about, and that’s the fact that apparently The Good, The Bad, & The Queen was not a one-off effort, and that a new album from the band is written and ready to be recorded.

TV on the Radio is getting ready to release their new album Seeds, and last night the band played the previously unreleased “Could You”.

Pond, the side project from a couple of members of Tame Impala, are set to release their second album, and have released a new video.

Foo Fighters were on Letterman all of last week, and Consequence of Sound has done a good job of cataloging not only the various musical performances (many of which include legendary guests), but also the various comedic skits that the band did for the show.  The band premiered their new single “Something From Nothing” last week on the show, and today released a fancy lyric/performance video for the song, featuring guitarist Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick.  The song itself takes a while to build, and I’m not entirely sure the effort was worth it, but its emphatic chorus is sure to impress many fans.

And finally, be sure to check out the comic strip Pearls Before Swine and their musical take on the legendary “Who’s on First?” routine.

The Danger Mouse File

With the recent release of the new Broken Bells album After the Disco, this is as good a time as any for people to become even more familiar with the different projects of Danger Mouse.  If you’ve listened to music in the last ten years, you’ve come across several songs produced by Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, and more likely than not own at least an album filled with his contributions.

If there is one thing that I can pinpoint as a signature of the Danger Mouse Sound, it’s the idea of the old made new again, or perhaps the retro in a modern context.  This is not done in a showy or bombastic way–at no point in a Danger Mouse song is he calling to the listener’s attention THIS IS AN OLD STYLE/CONCEPT.  There is nothing post-modern about his use of old styles, and certainly no ironic commentary.  He’s not just throwing old records into a blender and spitting out reprocessed old music; you won’t find a dubstep version of a Hollies song, for example.  Though he first got most people’s attention with his Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up The Grey Album, he’s moved well beyond throwing modern beats behind old soul samples. It’s much more subtle, which is why it’s worked so well over multiple iterations. 

There are certain reoccurring elements that can be found in the Danger Mouse sound.  The one that I usually pick up on is a certain bass sound–quick, staccato single notes, and often muted to dampen the sound a bit.  There are also certain idiosyncrasies to his drumming/percussion, namely in his snare sound and his use of the ride cymbal, often matched with a late 50’s/early 60’s rock beat.  And you are also likely to hear certain organ flourishes that give an additional color; it’s usually not a dominant sound, but present enough in the background that it is a significant part of the atmosphere of the song.

Danger Mouse hasn’t just been consistently excellent in the past decade, he’s been quite prolific.  That means there are probably a few albums of his that you haven’t gotten around to listening to, or may not even have known existed.  I mean, I was looking at this list and saw a few albums that I owned that I had no idea he had helped produce.  It could just be confirmation bias speaking, but as I’ve listened to them in writing this article, I keep going, yeah, that definitely has that Danger Mouse sound.

One of those albums is The Good, The Bad & The Queen, which has unfortunately been forgotten about a bit over the years.  It’s the rare super-group album that’s worth listening to (and it definitely is a super-group: Damon Albarn of Blur, Simon Tong of The Verve, legendary drummer Tony Allen, and holy shit Paul Simonon of The Clash).  While each of the component parts are brilliant, they unite to create a singular album that is different than anything else they’ve ever done.

Another overlooked album is the debut of Electric Guest, Mondo.  I’ve heard the single “This Head I Hold” a bit on the local alternative radio station, but it never made much headway nationally.  It very much has the kind of groove found in Danger Mouse’s work with Gnarls Barkley, namely from the bass and from the classic pop-rock drums, just with a different singer.

Speaking of Gnarls Barkley, even though everyone knows their breakout hit “Crazy” and a lot of people picked up their debut album, their follow-up The Odd Couple never caught on like it should.  There was no single track that stood out from the pack like “Crazy” did, but the album was stacked from top-to-bottom with fantastic songs.  “Run”“Going On”, and “Surprise”  were all incredibly fun tracks filled with energy that should pack the dancefloor.  “Blind Mary”  was a bouncy track that managed the difficult task of being positive yet melancholic.  And then there’s the devastatingly heart-breaking ballad, “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?”, with it’s absolutely perfect video.

2008 was an absolutely banner year for Danger Mouse, creatively speaking.  He had three of my top ten albums of that year, an honor that means absolutely nothing to most everyone.  In addition to The Odd Couple, there was his work on Beck’s Modern Guilt and The Black Keys’s Attack & Release, albums which I will argue are among the high points of each artist’s careers.  Beck is of course famous for shifting genres with each album, and he slides in smoothly into the Danger Mouse style.  Beck always had a great touch in finding bits and pieces of old styles and repurposing them in modern contexts, so it should have been no surprise that he and Danger Mouse were simpatico.

The Black Keys were a different story.  They had an easily identifiable trademark sound of ragged two-man blues/rock, and it was unclear how another element could fit in without disrupting that aesthetic.  So often the production touches were at the margins or added for just little bits of color–a perfectly timed organ hit here, a little jazz flute there, etc.  It was enough to push the group into new creative directions and eventually into greater commercial success.  While some may grow tired of how The Black Keys have come to dominate rock radio today, I will always appreciate it when great songs like “Little Black Submarines” come on, even if they ruin some of its beauty by knocking out a whole verse and not allowing the song to properly develop (a rant that I will save for a later day).

It’s a lot better than being constantly subjected to Nickelback.

But perhaps the most interesting entry in the Danger Mouse discography is the project he did with composer Daniele Luppi, entitled Rome.  It’s basically a soundtrack to a fake spaghetti western, and it’s really quite a blast.  The album does a great job of mixing in instrumentals with more traditional “songs”, featuring Jack White and Norah Jones on vocals.  In the end it fulfills the goal of any project like this: it makes you want to see the movie that would have this soundtrack.

If this has done anything, I hope it makes you at least somewhat excited when news of another Danger Mouse release comes out.  And checking the calendar, you should be feeling that in approximately…three months.  Enjoy.