Gnarls in charge on dizzying debut
By SEAN DALY
Published May 9, 2006
Al Green in Dawn of the Dead?
Flavor Flav in Superman tights?
Kanye West in the loony bin?
It's not easy describing Gnarls Barkley's debut disc, St. Elsewhere, a legitimate front-runner for album of the year. In fact, not since Radiohead's OK Computer have I so adored an album that made my brain throb with confusion.
The two-man group Gnarls Barkley indulges in sonic swatches of rock, rap, soul, pop, blues, techno and gospel, all of which float around in wild swirls of found sounds, symphonic silliness and Saturday morning boinks! and bloops! The album's running theme is insanity, madness, the pleasures and pains of losing your marbles, the loose hinge connecting the real and the surreal.
Or, um, something like that.
Gnarls Barkley is a pop-culture-loving supergroup made up of producer Danger Mouse, who crafted the Gorillaz hit Feel Good Inc., and hip-hop eccentric Cee-Lo, a rapper from Atlanta's Goodie Mob who'd much rather croon soul than bust rhymes. Delightfully deranged, Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo - both of whom have been nominated for Grammys in the past - were made for each other. (They're also apparently big fans of NBA great Charles Barkley.)
Gnarls Barkley is already a sensation in the U.K., with catchy first single Crazy staying put at the top of the charts. "I remember when I lost my mind, there was something so pleasant about that place," Cee-Lo warbles, his high-pitched tenor struggling to stay afloat on a springboard beat, choral coos and ghostly vinyl scratches. It's like Seal meets the Gorillaz in St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Or something like that.
Cee-Lo is an engaging frontman, a charming wiseacre whose inner demons strike out at the strangest times. His hammiest moment happens on the Screamin' Jay Hawkins salute The Boogie Monster, where the urban warrior sing-speaks a spooky bedtime tale over exaggerated piano pounds and a Halloweeny bass line. "I used to wonder why you looked familiar," Cee-Lo croons to the titular beastie, "then I realized it was a mirror." Edgar Allan Poe goes hip-hop!
For all of Cee-Lo's manic charms, however, there's no mistaking St. Elsewhere's true star. Danger Mouse, a.k.a. music prodigy Brian Burton, is the most inventive newcomer in pop music. No question about that. He first made a name for himself by blending the Beatles' White Album and rapper Jay-Z's Black Album - while sitting at a computer in his L.A. apartment. The result? The Grey Album, a head-spinning genre smoosh that kick-started the "mash-up" craze.
As well as making the Gorillaz a worldwide smash, Danger Mouse was also part of last year's bizarro duo Danger Doom, in which the producer teamed with rapper MF Doom and characters from the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim series. It wasn't for everyone, but my 2-year-old and I finally had music we could both enjoy on the drive to Busch Gardens.
Whereas Danger Doom was essentially a cool side project, however, Gnarls Barkley has the potential for prolonged greatness. On St. Elsewhere, Danger Mouse is still feeling experimental - dance track Storm Coming is built with dozens of trippy parts - but not at the risk of hurting his album's hit potential. This album has pop oomph and genuine poetry.
Go-Go Gadget Gospel is a showoff spectacular, built on three different rhythm sections, including a cheesy horn line that sounds borrowed from bad-TV classic Battle of the Network Stars; the song is punctuated by Cee-Lo's triumphant chorus of "I'm free!" (free from the asylum, presumably). Danger Mouse's New Wave roots show on a swinging cover of the Violent Femmes' Gone Daddy Gone (gone from reality, presumably).
And as a perfect example of the album's puckishly menacing vibe, the bittersweet spiritual Smiley Faces sounds like Stevie Wonder as a robotic reverend fighting the blues.
Or, you know, something like that.
Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere Downtown.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic.