In this age of Popstars and Making the Band, the idea of a fully manufactured pop group is hardly even 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 for his four animated urchins (Russel, 2-D, Murdoc and Noodle) are such "guests" as Damon Albarn (Blur) and Del tha Funkee Homosapien.
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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, fortunately, lacks ape jokes, silly skits or a theme song. Although the band may be a gimmick, the music never sounds prefabricated or cartoonish. Yes, Albarn's koan-esque 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 Beck-like combinations in the mix. The 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 Ferrer 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 the 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 eighty-year-old crooner and a Brit-pop star pretending to be a cartoon monkey without playing either for laughs.