A sharper concept than his Blur days

Times Staff Writer

THE concept album marks a return to Britpop form for Damon Albarn, lead singer of British band Blur and the musical brains behind the Grammy-nominated cartoon dub-rock band Gorillaz.

The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has joined forces with bassist Paul Simonon of the Clash, ex-Verve guitarist Simon Tong and Tony Allen, the venerable Nigerian drummer from Fela Kuti's Africa 70 band, to form an unnamed supergroup that's already receiving critical hosannas in Britain. Produced by Gnarls Barkley's beat-making maestro Danger Mouse (who collaborated with Albarn on Gorillaz's second CD, "Demon Days"), its sound encompasses punk, Kinks-esque rock, world beat, doo wop and even ethereal passages reminiscent of Ennio Morricone film scores.

More to the point, the group's January album, "The Good, the Bad and the Queen," is a meditation on the London of today, cataloging millennial Britain's roiling cultural life with a wry straightforwardness akin to Albarn's last Britop effort: Blur's 1994 album "Parklife."

The album's stated concept is not so much "London Calling" as a kind of product recall for the British Empire -- London Recalled? -- as evidenced by the lyrics of "Three Changes," in which he calls England a "stroppy little island of mixed-up people."

"My country is involved in the imperial merry-go-round. Once it was driving, now it's in the back seat," Albarn says. "The album is saying how we engage in these horrific atrocities without a lot of understanding of what we're engaging in. You feel very helpless and sad."

Just don't call "TGTBATQ" a companion piece to "Parklife" within his earshot. "You can't set out to say, 'I'm going to write a bookend to Britpop," says Albarn, with not just a little agitation. "It's about setting the record straight. 'Parklife' wasn't a happy, cheerful record looking at the past. It was an angry, cynical record about the ways Britain was changing at the time."

Hence the Good, the Bad and the Queen -- also the group's de facto name.

The Blur frontman's path to Britpop redemption was pitted with false starts, however. He recorded an album's worth of material in Lagos, Nigeria, with Allen and Tong in 2001 but then decided to scrap it in 2003 after concluding that it sounded like "a very convincing Nigerian record that wasn't quite right."

It was Albarn's West London neighbor Simonon (whom Albarn met after being dragged in 1995 to Clash singer-guitarist Joe Strummer's wedding reception by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders) that led to the creation of TGTBATQ. "Paul had a similar attitude toward England, he had multicultural influences and an outlook like mine and an eccentric palette when it comes to music," Albarn says. "And we're neighbors. We clicked."

A reunion with three Stooges

IN March, Michigan proto-punk band the Stooges is set to release a "reunion" album featuring three-fourths of its original lineup. "The Weirdness" will be the volatile group's first studio recording in more than 30 years.

It wouldn't have happened if the Stooges' siblings -- guitarist Ron Asheton and drummer Scott Asheton -- had bothered to change their home phone number: In 2003, lead singer Iggy Pop dialed the last number he had for the Ashetons to enlist their help for his solo album "Skull Ring." And in a fluke of luck -- or laziness, depending on your outlook -- the brothers hadn't changed their digits in 25 years.

Recording took place at the Chicago studio of rock production whiz Steve Albini, with Mike Watt (formerly of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE) on bass and original saxophone player Steve Mackay making a return appearance. Final mix-downs for "The Weirdness" are being done at London's venerable Abbey Road Studios.

Want what you haven't got

IT'S not just anyone who gets Christmas gifts from a skinheaded Rastafarian feminist and outspoken firebrand known for tearing up photographs of the pope on live TV. But this year, Sinead O'Connor is delivering season's greetings via free digital download. Through Dec. 31, the Irish singer-songwriter is offering two songs at emusic .com -- well ahead of her new album's April release.

"The song 'Jeremiah (Something Beautiful)' talks about Christmas, so it seems appropriate given the time of year," she said in an announcement.

Fans can click on www.emusic.com/album/10983/10983544.html.

Taking the holidays off

IF your holidays are feeling insufficiently ... distorted, you're not hallucinating. After establishing a tradition with its marathon series of holiday season concerts in recent years, Orange County punk band Social Distortion is nowhere to be found on the year-end concert calendar.

Singer-songwriter Mike Ness and his cohorts have taken over Southland clubs and theaters for upward of two dozen typically sold-out shows each December and January. But not this year.

A subtle message, perhaps, from the man who wrote and sang "Don't Take Me for Granted"?

"About every three years we give it a rest," band manager Jim Guerinot says. "That's all really."

-- Randy Lewis



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