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Gorillaz – Humanz

God this album is bad.  Every year there’s bound to be one massive disappointment from a critically revered artist, and thus far this year Damon Albarn’s beloved Gorillaz project is winning (losing?) that race by a landslide.  The first Gorillaz album since 2010’s solid Plastic Beach, Humanz arrives two years after Albarn reunited Blur for The Magic Whip, a so-so album that sounds exactly like you’d expect Blur to sound 15 years after their heyday, and three years since his sad, grey, lonely and boring solo album, Everyday Robots.  And it’s a mess in all the worst ways possible.  It’s dense in songs, features and ideas but next to none of them succeed.  It’s way too long, a 20 track, 48 minute slog that feels much longer.  There are six needless, corny interludes.  The vocal features are all over the place; verses from solid performers sound completely out of place on the instrumentals Albarn has built for them, and others are just awful regardless of what they’re rapping / singing over.  There is no trace of personality or presence from the imaginary band that the project takes its name for; rather, Humanz sounds like a collection of unsuccessful demos that should have been titled “Damon Albarn writes subpar, half-baked songs for people he thinks are cool and wants to work with.”

Humanz, like other Gorillaz releases, is a pseudo concept album about the slow, deliberate destruction of humanity at the hands of greed, warfare, deceit, inept government and late stage market capitalism.  And for the most part, the featured vocalists adhere to the theme in their lyrical content.  The album also has a cohesive production aesthetic; dark, heavy, bassy tracks with little in the way of colorful synthesizers or guitars.  And those are the only compliments I can give Humanz.  It’s sort of remarkable that Damon Albarn wrote hits like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.“, but couldn’t manage to put together one catchy song anyone would remember five minutes after it’s ended.  It’s perhaps even more remarkable that he wrote beautiful, melancholy ballads like “El Manana“, yet not a single song here pulls at any heartstring or impresses with synthetic production.  The instrumentals are incredibly boring, repetitive and lack imagination completely.  Every track is just a 4/4 pounding bass rhythm with a few low, ominous synths, a rap verse or speak-singing passage followed by a ‘hook’ or ‘chorus’ that sounds almost exactly like the rest of the track, like the rest of the whole album, except with some sad, faux-tragic female vocalist or Albarn’s own voice singing banal, nondescript lyrics about how much the world sucks.

The proper opener  is Vince Staples on “Ascension”, probably the best song here (Vince Staples can’t really deliver a bad verse), but the production fails to impress, an uptempo, vaguely dark, vaguely electronic haberdashery featuring a canned gospel chorus sample chanting “higher”.  Things only get worse after that.  “Strobelite” is the worst combination of Albarn’s dancey, techno impulses and inoffensive 80s disco pastiche.  “Momentz” is practically unlistenable, not because De La Soul isn’t spitting as fast as he can, but because the underlying bass pounding out every quarter note sounds fucking awful, the chanted “Momentz!” vocal sample spliced in every 12 seconds or so sounds fucking awful, and the shrieking, wailing “Plastic on the ceiling!” bridge sounds fucking awful.  All the interludes are heavy-handed and completely unnecessary, such as “The Non-Conformist Oath”, where the ‘irony’ of a crowd repeating in unison “I promise not to repeat what other people say!” makes 50 Cent’s fellatio reference on “Candy Shop” appear subtle in comparison.

No song is pretty.  No vocal take is especially memorable or enjoyable.  Danny Brown probably has the best verse here (another rapper who rarely fails to be exciting) but the droning techno R&B number he’s paired on compliments his vocal style like salad dressing compliments ice cream.  There’s a track called “Sex Murder Party” that’s as bad as a song called “Sex Murder Party” could have been (yes, the chorus whispers “Sex murder party”), but far more boring – nothing fucking happens on this song at all!  The record stumbles and face-plants out the door with the penultimate “Hallelujah Money”, which features a bizarre baritone vocal from Benjamin Clementine reciting revolutionary lyrical content expressing the concept that money is the root of all evil (Gasp!).  But the closer is miles worse; an upbeat, positive song that sounds like it was Albarn’s attempt to write for Sesame Street (“We got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens!  We got hte power to do that!”) before Savages’ Jehnny Beth (yes, you read that right) shows up with an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, nearly campy vocal take that makes me want to kill myself.

And through it all, where the hell are the Gorillaz?  The fictional band is nowhere to be found, no guitar lines from Noodle, no acoustic bass lines from Murdoch, minimal live drumming from Russel and only occasional vocal takes from 2-D (aka Albarn himself).  Albarn stated in an interview that he has 40 more Gorillaz songs that didn’t make the album (there are also six ‘deluxe edition’ songs you can get on iTunes or something).  If these were the 14 best songs he could put together, I can’t even begin to imagine the steaming pile of shit that are those other 40.

Score:  2 / 13

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Bleachers – Gone Now

I came across this album browsing albumoftheyear.org, aka the best website on the internet.  I didn’t know who Bleachers was, but I assumed it was an indie rock band.  Bleachers is an indie rock band name.  And I actually love the artwork, which I assumed was a photo of someone that was definitely not in the band.  Boy was I in for a surprise!  Turns out Bleachers is Jack Antonoff, formerly of fun. and co-writer / producer of hits with Taylor Swift, Sia and Carly Rae Jepsen.  Gone Now is about as pure a mid 2000s ‘pop’ album as exists anymore.  This is an album full of songs that are one vocal take away from being on a kids bop CD.  I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these songs were supposed to be the single, since they pretty much all follow the same ‘jaunty Bon Jovi piano verses into big, theatrical, over-the top, epic I HAVE SINCERE FEELINGS chorus’ formula.  If this was 2009, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear any of these songs on the radio.

But it’s not 2009, it’s 2017.  One of the best #1 hits on the radio this year was Migos’ “Bad and Boujee”.  Bieber has owned the radio by pivoting from love songs to low-key Drake-washed trop house.  Kendrick Lamar set a streaming record with an album about expectation-fueled depression and conservative politics.  The two pillars of a successful hit in 2017 are Rihanna’s “Work” (repetitive minimalist song about fucking) and Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” (trap).  What I’m trying to say is, Antonoff injected a corny, saccharine, over-the-top sentimental tween-friendly pop album into the worst environment he possibly could.  Who the fuck is looking for a fist pumping choral refrain of “You steal the air out of my lungs, you make me feel it / I pray for everything we lost, buy back the secrets!” over 80s shotgun snares sung by Lena Dunham’s boyfriend when “HUMBLE.” hit number one?  Who wants sappy saxophones blaring away while said white dude throws on all the reverb in the world to build through a pre-chorus of “But there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to settle up with Heaven / And today I gotta settle in Heaven”?  Katy Perry’s much more adept songwriting team is floundering in the current environment.  Gaga pivoted to acoustic.  Sheeran is the poster-boy for sincerity and he killed a it this year with a repetitive minimalist song about fucking.  Even the calculated, manufactured Song of the Summer © at least has Chance and Quavo on it.

There is little variety of themes or sonics throughout Gone Now.  The run-times of the first 9 songs differ by less than a minute.  Every chorus on here is ‘bombastic’.  Every bpm is between 90 and 120.  Some moments are worse than others.  On “Goodbye”, there’s a Lena Dunham spoken word passage interjected into Antonoff’s singing that comes off as incredibly heavy-handed and indulgent.  It’s as if it wasn’t enough for Antonoff to beat you over the head with how much being sad sucks on his choruses so he had to prove it by saying “Here, look at this!  This is my GIRLFRIEND!  This is REAL!  This is RAW!”  “All My Heroes” is like the 3rd grade cliff-notes of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends“.  Antonoff actually does two reprises of songs he did earlier on the album, and neither of them are the closer.  There is a song called “Nothing Is U”.

There is one moment on the record that shows signs of potential.  The second track, “Goodmorning”, is plenty corny, rehashing the same “I make mistakes at night and feel ways about them but I’ll persevere!” theme that pretty much every track goes for (“Because I lied to you / I lied to your face in the summer”), but it’s as catchy as anything on here and the production is actually very interesting.  There are plenty of moments were Antonoff isolates his voice completely in one channel, a risky move that leaves it very exposed.  Other times the vocal production is almost Casablancas-fuzzy, and rather than crowd the chorus with a million synthesizers and choir vocal takes, he actually keeps the arrangement spartan and tidy.  If the whole record took these kinds of creative risks, I’d say we might be in business.  Sadly, Antonoff abandons such ideas by track 3 and the rest of the record is fucking wallpaper.

Score: 2 / 13