Sometimes you just don’t want to be yourself. You go through a mundane life filled with exciting things like exams and papers. What can you do to escape this dour existence? Create a cartoon persona.
That’s just what these five bands have done. They have not only concocted colorful characters with personalities all their own, but also substantial musical works that can rightfully stand on their own.
We’re not dealing with bands from cartoons like Josie and the Pussycats or Alvin and the Chipmunks, nor “fake” bands such as Spinal Tap or the Monkees. Generally, cartoon bands are side projects from already accomplished artists. From alter ego assassins to songs about animÃ¨, these bands use cartoons to express themselves and their music.
When Gorillaz hit the airwaves last year, nobody had a clue what to make of them. The brainchild of Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur, and animator J.C. Hewlett, Gorillaz dropped what had to be the surprise hit single of 2001, “Clint Eastwood,” with a chorus, “I got sunshine in a bag,” that was stuck in the heads of people from age four to 34. “Clint Eastwood” crashed the bubblegum pop-commercial rap party that dominated singles charts. The track featured production by workaholic Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, and the deft rhyming of Del Tha Funky Homosapien. However, after purchasing the self-titled debut CD, many listeners were dismayed, finding that “Clint Eastwood” was the jiggy hip-hop track on the genre-bending album.
This past summer, Gorillaz released Laika Come Home, an album of pseudo-remixes by their virtual counterparts, Spacemonkeyz. With this album, Virgin Records must have given Gorillaz total autonomy (or have been thrown for a loop) because Laika Come Home is not your ordinary remix album. P. Diddy, the self-proclaimed “inventor of the remix,” should take note.
The songs on Laika Come Home have little to do with their forbears on Gorillaz. The entire album is comprised of reggae dub music, which is a more laid-back, old school version of reggae, as opposed to dancehall. Gorillaz recruited three of the finest dub masters of Jamaica. Some of the songs exhibit the same hooks, such as “Jungle Fresh (19/2000),” which features Cibo Matto’s Miho “straight outta purgatory” Hatori. The track introduces the mellow mood of Laika. “A Fistful of Peanuts,” the mix of “Clint Eastwood,” is reggae to the bone, with a raw baseline, intermittent chanting and harmonica. Like most of the tracks on this album, this track is nothing like the original.
This is a pleasing album, one that you can just put on and kick back to. Yeah, it’s monotonous, but this is a rare case where monotony is a good thing.
DJ/emcee/producer/genius Madlib is possibly the hardest-working man in underground hip-hop. In the past two years, he’s produced two jazz CDs with his group Yesterdays New Quintet, of which he is the sole member and plays all the instruments. Also known as The Beat Conductor, he’s produced tracks on various mix albums (The Loot Pack LP, Constant Elevation, etc.) for Stones Throw Records.
In underground hip-hop circles he is best known as Quasimoto, the alter ego he created in 2000. The character can be described as a magenta sand sculpture of Alf with a straighter, more conical nose.
Under the guise of Quasimoto, aka Lord Quas, Madlib released The Unseen in 2000. Although it was a slow burn, The Unseen is now legendary in the underground hip-hop world. After the intro, you first hear a nasally voice dropping quick-witted rhymes on the track “Bad Character”, such as “I’ll stab a n—- in the chest/With a pitchfork/From behind/And rob some rich folks/For making my ancestors eat swine.” The rhymes are said by none other than Madlib himself, who uses a voice modulator to achieve this persona. And from these lyrics, you can tell Quasimoto doesn’t mess around. On “Astro Black,” his ode to “skin-hitters,” Quasimoto’s machine-gun delivery is not only fast but also uncannily clear.
A few tracks showcase Madlib’s natural voice as well. On the second verse “Discipline 99 Pt.0,” he switches on the fly from his own voice into Lord Quas. “Return of the Loop Digga,” shows Madlib’s inventive lyricism, with lines like “I got s— on deck/Just like a pelican/The Beat Conductor orchestrate/Put you under my spell again.”
The real treats of The Unseen are the beats. Madlib puts listeners where he wants them by completely changing up the beats mid-track, often throwing three or more beats in the same song. “The Unseen” starts out with a mellow beat, switches into a gritty beat with lots of scratching, and then into a classic West Coast-flavored beat. On the album’s 24 tracks there are no less than 35 beats. The samples Madlib has unearthed are amazing. He samples jazz artists, slam poetry, vaudeville singing, comedian and Red Foxx, among others.
Madlib has a cult following from Stones Throw’s home in San Francisco to Sweden. By mixing fresh, well-spaced beats with uncountable samples, Madlib has revolutionized “beat conducting” and created an album for beat junkies everywhere.
It’s 1967, and everyone wants to be a hippie. British bands are invading America, with trippy, life-altering results. Girls who make their own dresses and dudes in VW buses are everywhere. So are some special herbs and spices, sold to you by some guy who doesn’t call himself the Colonel. This is the world where of Montreal wants to take you, to a place less materialistic and less technological than today.
From Athens, Ga. (of all places), of Montreal sound like they just got off a plane from swingin’ London. How they weren’t on any of the Austin Powers soundtracks needs to be investigated.
Of Montreal makes music the good ol’ fashioned way: in their bedroom. Part of the Elephant 6 Collective, of Montreal has made five “bedroom” albums in the past five years, each a little more rocking than the last. Their most recent release, Aldhils Arboretum, was released in late September. Their songs have a whimsical essence incomparable to the rest of today’s music.
“Pancakes for One” features the line “a sundae for one is never delicious/because eating junk food with you was such fun.” On “An Ode to the Nocturnal Muse,” lead singer Kevin Barnes sings about how he loves to sleep because his bed “brings strange dreams to me” and when he’s asleep he “can see anything.”
Death is also a theme in many of the band’s songs. “Old People in the Cemetery” talks about “the fact that we’re all fruit for worms.” “The Blank Husband Epidemic” centers on the singer’s Auntie Eleanor and her nameless, suicidal husband.
Of Montreal also squeezes in references from today, such as this female cousin’s “significant other” on “Jennifer Louise,” and a loiterer with “a Thug Life tattoo” on “Isn’t it nice.”
Of Montreal is not a retro band (a la The Strokes, The Hives, etc.). Retro merely implies a contemporary interpretation of the past. Of Montreal is the past, and we are fortunate that they are still there.
The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips are renowned for delivering the unexpected. On Zaireeka, they asked listeners to play all four CDs of the set at the same time, with mind altering – or destroying – results. (Each CD sounds fine by itself, by the way.) Their last album, The Soft Bulletin, answered the heady questions of love and life with melodic brilliance, and the Lips received their most positive reviews to date.
So, what do they do next? They release an album with the ambitious title Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The title refers to an animÃ¨ film in which the hero, Yoshimi, conquers psychological torment, emotional distrust, and in general, saves her world from robots that want to have feelings.
What does that have to do with spacey synth-rock? Nothing really, but that doesn’t stop lead singer Wayne Coyne from singing about Yoshimi over the triptych that follows the first track. “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21” lists the troubles Yoshimi’s world must overcome over a trip-hop backtrack. Coyne relays the intentions of the robots on the planet Unix, singing “One more robot wants to be/Something more than a machine.” Unix is wrought with artificiality, as Coyne’s singing “Feeling/A synthetic kind of love/Dreaming/A sympathetic wish.”
On “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1,” Coyne’s lilting, Neil Young-esque voice chronicles the training of Yoshimi, accompanied by soft guitars and a trippy back beat. “Pt. 2,” is supposed to represent Yoshimi’s battles with the robots. What that has to do with the funky synthesizer and bass-heavy instrumental track, the world may never know. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing since it’s the catchiest song on the album.
There are songs on the album that are more relevant to living, breathing humans. On the gorgeous “All We Have is Now,” Coyne tackles the end of relationships singing “You and me/were never meant to be/part of the future.” Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots shows that after 17 years the Flaming Lips still make music that sounds fresh and innovative, and have plenty of imagination left up their sleeves.
The Wu Tang Clan started out as a way for some urban emcees to break out of the standard gangsta rap mold by co-opting the mythology of their kung-fu heroes. Each member picked up multiple aliases (Method Man/John Blaze, Ghostface Killah/Tony Starks, U-God/Golden Arms, etc). Voila, a hip-hop dynasty was born.
The beatsmaster of the group, Rza, aka Bobby Steele, has, over the past few years, created another persona for himself named Bobby Digital. He disses “analog emcees” for their lack of technical savvy and fear of the future, which of course is “digital.” Rza mixes this with comic book colors and blaxploitation beats to further move himself from the commercial rap that dominates the airwaves. He’s also planned comic books and a film with Bobby Digital as the centerpiece, but they are as yet still coalescing in Rza’s brain.
Rza has released two albums as Bobby Digital. The first, Rza as Bobby Digital in Stereo, released in 1998, displayed both the good and the bad about the Digital one, and Rza himself. On B.O.B.B.Y, he drops some dense Wu Tang lines like “Bubblegoose shredders made him thick as Carl Weathers/Solid chrome barettas nines stuffed inside the Wu leather.” Unfortunately, the song is scarred by the chorus, in which Rza messily spells out “Bobby Digital” with a “the” between each letter. Numerous skits also victimize the album.
Digital Bullet, released last year, is an improvement. Rza thickly lays on the blaxploitation funk beats and mixes more samples of oriental sounding string instruments. He also lets his synthesizers go wild. On “Bong Bong,” the drum-heavy beat is wonderfully balanced by near chaotic oriental stings. “Do U” has a beat that echoes the richness of the soul-inspired beats of Wu Tang’s past, and features the crisp lyricism of Gza/Genius. If you forget about the ODB sex romp “Black Widow Pt. 2” and “Throw Up Your Flag,” which sounds like a tired West Coast track, Digital Bullet is easily Rza’s best solo effort.
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