Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Gorillaz, "Plastic Beach" (Virgin) 3 and a half stars

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Since the long silence on record from Britpop heroes Blur--their last album was "Think Tank" in 2003--singer and bandleader Damon Albarn has hardly been absent from the music scene. His many other endeavors include numerous worldbeat projects ("Mali Music," "Monkey: Journey to the West" and producing Amadou and Mariam among them), the awkwardly titled The Good, the Bad and the Queen and of course those post-modern Banana Splits (or "virtual hip-hop group," as he prefers), Gorillaz. With all of this musical activity, plus a seemingly short-lived Blur reunion last year, fans are forgiven for suspecting that Albarn was distracted while crafting Gorillaz' newest. Yet while the animated genre-blenders' third effort is much more laidback and low-key than its predecessors, it is no less rewarding.

Following the prevailing trend of too much big-name hip-hop product circa 2010, "Plastic Beach" is lousy with cameo appearances, from the ubiquitous Snoop Dogg to De La Soul, soul legend Bobby Womack to punk godfather Lou Reed, and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash to the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. Yet the focus never strays far from Albarn's prevailing sonic vision of one ever-shifting, globe-spanning groove adorned with dark yet captivating melodies, paired here with conceptual partner Jamie "Tank Girl" Hewlett's latest alternate-universe concept of a floating island of trash alienating humanity from the natural world, though nevertheless full of hidden and unexpected treasures.

More dense and downbeat the self-titled 2001 debut or "Demon Days" (2005) and lacking a jump-out hit like "Clint Eastwood" or "Feel Good Inc.," the cartoon simians' latest offering actually feels more of a piece than the other albums, and it provides a beginning-to-end journey of an entrancing if slightly sinister world that exists only in the space between your ear buds.

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Overall the album is disappointing but you fail to mention the best track "Glitter Freeze" featuring a Mark E Smith voice over. The Lou Reed track is pretty good but the Ex Clash guys fail to deliver on the title track which sounds like an outtake from the Combat Rock sessions.

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