Almost two years ago I reviewed a really wonderful CD for Blogcritics called Greetings From Cairo Illinois by a man named Stace England. He used a variety of styles of American music to trace the history of what should have been a major industrial hub of the Midwest that has turned into an echo of its former prosperous self.
He researched and found old songs dating back to early settlement days, and wrote original music in styles that reflected the era of the events depicted. All in all it was an impressive effort to recreate time and place in music. After listening to the CD I was able to come away with an impression of the history of the city of Cairo, Illinois.
I mention this CD as a means of comparison for a disc that is being released this coming week on the Virgin label called The Good, The Bad, And The Queen featuring the talents of Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon, Tony Allen, and Simon Tong. The reason the comparison is appropriate is that according to Damon, who appears to have been the driving force behind the disc's creation, the disc is about West London and why he thinks it is such a special area to live in.
According to the promotional material, although the disc is specific to a geographical area, it draws upon the multitude of musical influences that have sprouted up in British popular music over the past century. It includes everything from the Music Hall tradition of World War Two through to the modern sounds of Punk, Afro-Beat, and Reggae, all of which was supposed to culminate into a depiction of what it is to be English now.
Having heard Stace English and his approach in the aforementioned Greetings From Cairo Illinois I was interested to see what these gentlemen came up with. London is such an ethnically diverse mixture – especially that neighbourhood which includes Portobello Market – and has such a fascinating history that the musical possibilities appeared endless.
Unfortunately they must have only seemed limitless in my mind.
When I hear the words, Punk, Reggae, Afro-Beat, and even Music Hall I expect music with a little life in its soul. Instead what you get on The Good, The Bad, And The Queen is what sounds like a series of songs slightly more energetic than your average dirge. Even making allowances for artistic license and a figurative rather than literal approach to the depiction doesn't explain away the lifelessness of the material.
Have they even been to Portobello Market on a weekend; it's insane. Everywhere you look are colours, sounds, and people of all shape, sizes, and race talking at the tops of their lungs. Either buying or selling, or just having a conversation, the place is virtual cacophony of accents and music from across what used to be the British Empire. Even that pishy movie Notting Hill with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant managed to instill some of that energy into an otherwise forgettable movie.
It's not that the music is bad, because it isn't. The first song on the disc "The History Song" features some really nice guitar work and feels like the perfect song to start off with. But instead of being a prelude to something more, nothing much happens musically from there on in except for some minor variations on the same theme.
There's synthesizer on some tracks, or a little bit of bass on others, and maybe echoes of something that could be Music Hall on another. But these songs have a lot in common with the stereotypical bachelor, a failure to commit. Instead of making a decision to either embrace a genre or to supply its flavour to a song, the music ends up sounding wishy-washy and uncertain of direction.
As an idea the concept is great, take an area and define it with music to give the listener an impression of the atmosphere and the ambiance. If one were to judge West London by The Good, The Bad, And The Queen one would think of it as perpetually raining and depressed. I don't honestly think that was their intent with this project.
They did say they like living there, it's mighty hard to tell that by listening to this CD.
The Good, The Bad, And The Queen will be available from most outlets on January 23rd 2007.