Handsome Boy Modeling School/White People
These two albums have a lot in common: Both are the product of concept bands fronted by imaginary characters; both are follow-ups to highly successful debuts; and both were made by a core duo augmented by numerous guest stars.
Handsome Boy Modeling School is the creation of superstar hip-hop producers Prince Paul and Dan the Automator, who for the purposes of this project wear fake moustaches and call themselves Nathaniel Merriweather and Chest Rockwell. The first Handsome Boy album, 1999’s So… How’s Your Girl?, was a star-studded mix of hip-hop, trip-hop, and comedy inspired by an episode of the Chris Elliott sitcom “Get a Life.” White People is even more star-studded, almost ridiculously so; at times it seems less like music than a way for Nate and Chest to show off the contents of their rolodexes. (Wait a minute… nobody uses rolodexes anymore… I mean the contents of their Blackberries, or their cell phones, or their assistants’ cell phones, or wherever high-powered producers keep their phone numbers these days.) Don Novello a/k/a Father Guido Sarducci reprises his role as Handsome Boy’s most successful graduate, while Tim Meadows does a version of the Ladies Man on between-song skits. Del the Funkyhomosapien, reggae star Barrington Levy, and Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos all appear — on one song, “The World’s Gone Mad.” Julee Cruise, who we last heard from on the “Twin Peaks” soundtrack circa 1989, duets with uber-hip Pharrell Williams on “Class System.” There’s not enough room on the Internet to name everybody else who shows up here, but a partial list would include De La Soul, Mike Patton, Cat Power, Jack Johnson, the RZA, John Oates, and two of the guys from Linkin Park.
With such a diverse cast of characters, you’d think this album would be running off in seven different directions at the same time. And you’d be right. White People veers wildly from style to style and from mood to mood, and as a result never builds up any momentum. Many of the individual tracks are quite brilliant — as on How’s Your Girl?, the most atmospheric songs tend to work the best — but the throw-in-the-kitchen-sink approach makes the whole CD a frustrating listen that feels bloated at 60 minutes.
Demon Days is considerably more streamlined and coherent, with a sense of seriousness that belies Gorillaz’ status as a band made up of cartoon characters. That’s 2D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel looking fashionably sullen on the cover, but the real Gorillaz are Blur frontman Damon Albarn and — this time out — Danger Mouse of Gray Album fame (replacing the aforementioned Dan the Automator, who produced Gorillaz’ 2001 debut).
Although not as guest-star-heavy as White People, Demon Days has its share of heavyweight contributors: De La Soul (again), MF Doom, Roots Manuva, Shaun Ryder, Neneh Cherry, and (all too briefly) Martina Topley-Bird. Dennis Hopper lends his voice to a spoken-word piece called “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head,” and if the result is a bit silly, still, one Dennis Hopper is worth five Jack Johnsons.
On the whole, Albarn and Danger Mouse do a much better job than their Handsome counterparts of fitting their guests into what they’re trying to do. Which is to create a portrait of a world in peril topped off with a message of hope, and make it so irresistably groovy that people actually listen to it. No easy task, that — but they pull it off, and what’s more, they manage to do it without being obnoxious like U2.
In a way, Damon Albarn has become the anti-Bono, continually trying new things and not taking himself too seriously. And after some initial skepticism, I’ve really come around to Danger Mouse (for an opposing viewpoint,see fuckdjs.com). Put together, his work here, on the Gray Album, and on the recent Dangerdoom album make some major strides toward justifying all the hype he’s been getting.
The verdict: If you can only buy one recent album by an imaginary band, make it Demon Days. Or better yet, have someone burn it for you; they’ve sold a gazillion copies of this thing, so I don’t think they need your money.