Wednesday, February 21, 2007

three changes

I've been meaning for a while to write about the recent album by Damon Albarn, Tony Allen, Paul Simonon and Simon Tong, The Good, The Bad and The Queen, but if you've seen reviews elsewhere they'll most likely have summed up what I want to say, which is that it's an absolutely marvellous record, doomed and romantic, and yet another superlative project from Damon Albarn. Simonon's basslines are gleefully monochrome and monstrous, Allen's drumming sparkles and in 'Nature Springs', 'A Soldier's Tale' and the devastating 'Herculean' Albarn is arguably writing the best songs of his career. But rather than go into more detail, and sling around familiar turns of phrase/praise, I'm just going to look at the album's densest, most interesting songs: 'Three Changes'.

Firstly, it's the most successful collaboration on the record, by which I mean it's the song where the diverse talents of the band are most evident. Albarn is at his lyrical best, pinning England as 'dull and mild, a stroppy little island of mixed up people', Simonon does what he does best all over the record, which is pick out the simplest, most effective bassline he can and stick ruthlessly to it. But trying hardest are Tong and Allen, the latter producing the most dazzling, unpredictable rhythm track I think I've ever heard on a pop record and the former impressing simply by virtue of pretty well keeping up.

It's actually Albarn who lays down the first rhythmic challenge, thinking about it - his frantic hammond organ intro (which maps out most of the song, in fact) sounds simultaneously influenced by the Small Faces and arabic scales, setting a pace much faster and more frantic than the rest of the record. Tong and Simonen both take turns replicating the riff, but do so to Allen's almost unbelievably difficult yet precise drumming. His sound, which drops the beat down to a crisp click, so that you almost lose it, is somewhere between free jazz and afrobeat, and - I confess - initially utterly bewildering. You have to wait 'til you can pick out the bass drum and almost force yourself to nod along before the rhythm begins to make sense. When it does, it makes the drum track on every western rock record sound almost obselete.

Albarn's sonic adventurousness never quite lets the song settle down, fizzing along on an increasingly aggressive bent 'til the song vanishes amongst a fury of white noise and is replaced by what sounds at first like Albarn crashing around in a kitchen and then like badly taped Ethiopan jazz. Then the organ riff returns and the song drops back in, transformed. Tong weighs in with a more melodic riff but - crucially - this time Allen plays it straight, replacing his detailed clatter with a punchy 4/4 beat that could have come straight from a Gorillaz record. The final minute of the song is number one material. It's an amazing, hilarious transformation and it heralds the shift of the album's tone from fraught to celebratory. 'Green Fields', one of Damon's sweetest songs follows ("above all things I've learned - it's the honesty, that secures the bond in the heart") before the album's knees-up finale.

Were Albarn's restless, relentless spirit not immediately obvious in the path which Albarn has taken from 1999's soupy and disappointing 13 - the kraut-funk of 'Music Is My Radar', the delicate West African love letter to Mali, Mali Music, the dub-pop and hip-hop of Gorillaz, the thrilling Think Tank, TGTB&TQ - then 'Three Changes' would be a perfect summary; it showcases everything awkward and irritating about Albarn, as well as his unparallelled talent.

And some fucking amazing drumming, too.

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