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|1. Phoner To Arizona|
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|7. The Joplin Spider|
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|9. The Snake In Dallas|
|11. The Speak It Mountains|
|12. Aspen Forest|
|13. Bobby In Phoenix (feat. Bobby Womack)|
|14. California And The Slipping Of The Sun|
|15. Seattle Yodel|
2011 release from Damon Alburn and Co. Over 32 days on their 2010 North American Tour the Gorillaz recorded a musical diary titled The Fall which was made available to their fanclub as a Christmas gift. The 15-track sonic journal follows up their Gold album Plastic Beach which made numerous 'best of' lists for 2010 and a sellout stadium tour which blew audiences and critics away.
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What this means is, The Fall is as close as Gorillaz have ever come to making a pure electronic album. For the first time, we get a chance to focus on all those weird sound clips, effects, textures and layers that were always bubbling beneath the surface of Gorillaz albums. They come to the forefront and inspire a new emphasis on atmosphere. The instrumental opening track "Phoner To Arizona" starts with a fuzzy digital bass sound, fairly close to Plastic Beach, and adds some synth beeps from the same album, but also brings in dark, uneasy strings and a rhythmic hook that sounds like it was made by distorting the pitch on Albarn's voice and then chopping it up.
You can hear Plastic Beach in the rhythm section, the beats have the same tinny, cheap drum-machine sound. Maybe Plastic Beach was actually recorded on an iPad, too! But, surprisingly, the music on The Fall actually has more detail. Even the idyllic acoustic guitar line in the beginning of "Hillbilly Man" is more technically and rhythmically interesting than any ballad from Plastic Beach. The best tracks are the instrumentals. The biggest stand-out is the strutting, cinematic, horn-driven "The Snake In Dallas." But the breezy synth lead in "Detroit" is adorable and gentle, and the interplay between bright keyboard background and moody minor-key organ in "Shytown" (with some vocals, but it feels like another instrumental) creates a delicate mood, thoughtful but not gloomy.
The pacing is excellent, and short as the songs are, they reveal a surprising amount of variety. "Hillbilly Man" switches gears completely from acoustic guitar to trip-hop beats, dirge-like synths and scraping noises, but the same downbeat tone persists through the entire song. "California And The Slipping Of The Sun" kicks into a pretty great techno groove, but only close to the song's end. The production (but not the composition) is fairly simplistic and one-dimensional, the instruments sound compressed and artificial, but they are often manipulated in interesting ways, for example the desolate synth-chirping in "Little Pink Plastic Bags." Somehow the garish production style matches the somber mood and the album's overall concept. Apparently, it was recorded while on tour, and it has an atmosphere of transience and impermanence, sitting in some anonymous hotel room, looking out the window onto the usual highway, city or airport views and just killing time until something happens. "Slipping Of The Sun" even has what sounds like clips from a news broadcast or PA announcement.
It'd be a miracle if there wasn't any filler. "The Joplin Spider" is blaring synth noise (that can be good, but not with this flat production), and "The Speak It Mountains" takes too long to get going, with nearly a full minute of voices repeating "it is the dawn" before any music shows up. But even those two songs aren't a total loss. "Spider" brings in more melodic keyboards in the second half for a more trance-like sound. It fades out almost immediately on arrival, but what can you do? And "Mountains," once it gets over the voices, has a very relaxing two-note synth loop. It sounds like a nice intro to a song about the dawn, which unfortunately does not show up. "Aspen Forest" is a pleasant bit, not very memorable at first, but then a cascading harp-like phrase livens up the ending.
A couple of songs are basically just typical Albarn ballads: "Amarillo" sounds like "Herculean" from The Good, The Bad And The Queen," whereas "Revolving Doors" is a shuffling mope like "Rhinestone Eyes." I don't suppose we can blame him for playing to his own strengths. Over the past ten years, he's become an amazing crooner.
This may become a very under-rated album. There is no big single (in fact, no obvious single at all), the promotion is relatively modest, and yeah, the album was made in a month. One might be tempted to dismiss it as an insubstantial EP, collector bait like G-Sides or D-Sides. In fact, The Fall might even be better than Plastic Beach.
Some of the high points of this album are Amarillo featuring one of Damon Albarn's greatest vocal performances of all time, Bobby In Phoenix in which Bobby Womack delivers stunning gospel-reminiscent vocals, and Aspen Forest, an instrumental showcasing Damon Albarn's composing talents.
So in conclusion, if you love Damon Albarn's vocals and composing talents, definitely pick up this album. If you just want a bunch of collaborators or hip-hop, stay away.
But they continue to experiment and create in really interesting ways, and they seem mostly willing to do it in public. There's some unwelcome noodling and noise on "The Fall," and that's hardly shocking given how the album was produced, but what is surprising is the warmth, beauty, and humanity they managed to pump into then squeeze back out of an iPad.
Not every track is a gem. In fact, as the CD started playing my first thought was, Oh oh. Wasted money. But very soon and for much of the rest of "The Fall" I revised my opinion. And I'm left with this thought: Not every experiment on here is successful, but what IS successful is the ACT OF EXPERIMENTING. I give them huge credit for having the courage--not to say ballz--even to put some of this stuff out there. If this can inspire other people to turn their portable computing devices into sound studios with experiments of their own--so much the better. Gorillaz has demonstrated very ably what is possible from that approach.
"Revolving Doors" and "Bobby In Phoenix" stand out while "Little Pink Plastic Bags", "California & The Slipping Of The Sun" and "Seattle Yodel" seem pointless. There a far more instrumental tracks on "The Fall" than any other Gorillaz album. This alters the feel of this Gorillaz album to where it's more like a chill-out album rather than the eclectic mix you've come to expect.
So, "The Fall" is for fans only. It won't win new fans, and it might alienate some fans. "The Fall" is an interesting idea that ultimately feels unfinished--snapshots and sketches of ideas that never seem to fully materialize.
Here is how "The Fall" compares with previous Gorillaz work:
2001 Gorillaz: Three and a Half Stars
2002 G-Sides: Three Stars
2005 Demon Days: Four Stars
2007 D-Sides: Three and a Half Stars
2010 Plastic Beach: Four and a Half Stars
2011 The Fall: Three and a Half Stars
I really enjoyed this album, and don't want to let it go. It's a real trip!