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Planet of the Apes

In the economy of pop music, nothing holds more currency than the image. Lets face it--the exposed midriffs and spiked blonde highlights we see in videos, posters, live concerts and more are a hell of a lot more important in helping an artist achieve star status than the music itself. A pop icon must be stylized, poised, groomed, polished and molded into an easily marketable product, ever-prepared to amuse fans with a sassy quip or mildly entertaining scandal, preferably involving another member of the glitter-and-metallic-shirts clan.

As superficial as the whole thing may be, the care and maintenance of a living, breathing pop icon is no joke. In fact, it is an intricate science. Intelligent bastards that they are, the creators of Gorillaz realized all of this and came up with a brilliant idea: Why saddle yourself with the hassle of interviews, concerts and Total Request Live appearances when you can get some cartoon characters to do it for you?

Working from this philosophy, Gorillaz launch themselves as the world's first virtual band. The four members--Noodle, Russel, Murdoc and 2-D--are cartoon characters created by artist Jamie Hewlett (creator of Tank Girl), with the help of Blur's Damon Albarn. Uber-producer Dan "the Automator" Nakamura is the mastermind behind the music, which also features guitar and vocals by Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori and lyrical genius courtesy of rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien. Other humans behind the scenes include turntablist Kid Koala and Buena Vista Social Club's Ibrahim Ferrer. Despite the celebrity status of everyone on this musical dream team (or perhaps because of it), they insist on doing interviews, appearances--even live concerts--in character.

It's true that the whole cartoon band thing has already been done. Josie and the Pussycats, Jem and the Holograms, the Misfits--they all achieved cartoon glory long before Gorillaz.

But Josie didn't have a website.

For Gorillaz, the Internet is not just a marketing tool. It is where they exist. The four cartoon members live together in a house/recording studio that you can visit at www.gorillaz.com. At the website, you can read their emails, play with their pets, even put graffiti on the walls. Walk into the studio, and a scary skeleton-looking DJ will play their songs for you.

All of this time and effort put into creating a ridiculously interactive website and channeling all inquiries through a cartoon facade could very easily be a well-executed marketing ploy designed to camouflage less-than-stellar musicianship.

Thank Gorillaz this isn't the case.

The music is a refreshingly eclectic blend of hip-hop, rock, funk and dub, unlike anything you've ever heard. Futuristic and somewhat other-worldly, the sounds they make simply donOt compute with any category of modern music we currently have. Sometimes punkish, sometimes urban, always playful, the music has a transient nature that makes each track dissimilar to the one before it.

The album's first U.S. single, "Clint Eastwood," is far and away the most polished, well-orchestrated track on their CD. Its dub background, mixed with an oft-repeated chorus sung by Damon Albarn while Del tha Funkee Homosapien raps through his vision of himself as a spiritual leader for all the lost souls out there, holds the song together, and somehow makes Britpop and hip-hop seem like not-so-odd bedfellows.

With talent to spare, the CD sometimes gets weighed down with Albarn's vocals, which are so distinctive that they can overpower the more subtle grooves going on underneath. Del's vivaciously precise lyricism and Hatori's childlike croon both lend amazing strength to the few tracks they appear on, but they're not used nearly enough. Gorillaz are at their best when they take full advantage of the diversity of their talents on the funkier tracks like "19/2000" and "Rock the House."

The one thing that remains consistent throughout the entire album is its experimental nature, which sometimes gets in the way of the album's fluidity. When you're layering a Cuban jazz legend's voice over a lazy guitar and piano loop with a hip-hop beat ("Latin Simone"), the results aren't always perfect. But in the vapid void of pop music, Gorillaz reign supreme for daring to give the eye candy industry a good ass-kicking in the form of intelligent, eclectic grooves that are more than just background music for their image.

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