By Leah Greenblatt
Updated March 03, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST
Jamie Hewlett/EMI Music LTD

Twelve years ago, Blur frontman Damon Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett formed Gorillaz — a ”virtual band” whose animated avatars and woozy beats pastiche seemed custom-fit for a dawning era of smartphones, iPods, and other Jetson-y gizmos. ”I’m useless, but not for long/The future is comin’ on,” Albarn drawled on their first single, the dubby alt-chart hit ”Clint Eastwood.”

He was right: Gorillaz’ self-titled debut sold ?almost 2 million copies in the U.S. and made them stars, albeit in physical absentia (even in live performances, they are hidden behind ? giant cartoon projections). A half decade after their last release, 2005’s multiplatinum sophomore outing Demon Days, the band has returned, once again gilding their four-character core with a delightfully random roster of guest stars: Snoop Dogg, legendary soul smoothie Bobby Womack, Lou Reed, and the Clash’s Mick Jones among them.

Like its name, Plastic Beach has a sharp tang of cognitive dissonance — its songs sound like dispatches from a crew of hip-kid astronauts, unmoored in some space-dust ether. Sometimes, especially in the album’s latter half, that sonic drift can come off as dull, and even dispiriting. Often, though, they do it with style: Womack brings an organic jolt to the mentholated Casio cool of ”Stylo,” while the sparse, glitchy base of ”White Flag” is embroidered with brilliant threads of bhangra. In the end, Beach offers a vision of the future as digitized kitsch: groovy, yes, but lonely too. B

See all of this week’s reviews