In this age of Popstars and Making the Band, the idea of a fully manufactured pop group is hardly a windmill to tilt against. A cartoon band such as the Gorillaz, however, is an experiment that not even the most brazen marketer has attempted. It's something of a shock that the idea came from the head of Dan the Automator, the San Francisco DJ/auteur who created Deltron 3030 and the Dr. Octagon record. Supplying the music of his four animated urchins (Russel, 2-D, Murdoc and Noodle) are such "guests" as Damon Albarn (Blur) and Del tha Funkee Homosapien.
Although the Josie and the Pussycats concept leads to some great videos and a hilarious Web site, this polyglot posse wisely leaves the shtick behind for Gorillaz, the group's debut record, which lacks ape jokes, silly skits and even a theme song, fortunately. Although the band may be a gimmick, the music never sounds prefabricated or cartoonish. Yes, Albarn's koan-like chorus to "Clint Eastwood" ("I've got sunshine in my bag," he chirps) will stick in your head for weeks, but the Gorillaz mostly dabble in dub, punk and even a touch of soulful hip-hop, with a lot of Becklike combinations thereof. The band's rotating roster keeps the template from becoming too predictable or formulaic. It also keeps you from getting annoyed with the garishly cute Miho Hatori (Cibo Matto) or becoming blasé about a cameo by Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club. When he shows up on "Latin Simone," the entire record seems to stop for his smoky Cuban voice; he sounds effortlessly graceful, even though his words will be incomprehensible to your average English-speaker. It's a sure sign of the Automator's genius that he can make a record open-minded enough to encompass the 80-year-old crooner and a Brit-pop star pretending to be a cartoon monkey, without playing either for laughs.