Hype is just another four-letter word, but for Gnarls Barkley, this shit is well deserved.
For months now, people – music critics, BitTorrent-abusers, those who read Pitchfork religiously, friends of those who read such media sites religiously – have been whispering in delirious anticipation of the Danger Mouse/Cee-Lo Green collaboration. Or, at least, eagerly downloading the duo’s first single, “Crazy,” a chocolatey, string-based soul number that climbed its way to No. 1 in the United Kingdom based on downloads alone (the first single ever to do so).
An eclectic mix of hip hop, soul, funk and pop – everything Prince stands for with less sex and more humor – the debut album St. Elsewhere is nothing but eclectic, from the manic “Transformer” to the sly, gravel funk of “Boogie Monster.”
Of course, all of those aforementioned people could have told you everything about “Crazy,” as well as the rest of the hype that’s been swirling around the Danger Mouse/Cee-Lo pairing, known collectively as Gnarls Barkley. After all, Danger Mouse is the matchmaker of bastard pop’s star progeny, The Grey Album, fusing Jay-Z and The Beatles; most recently, he produced a goofier, but still tightly mixed “Adult Swim” tribute with MF Doom. Mr. Green, on the other hand, is one of the seminal voices of Southern rap, back when Atlantan hip hop meant heart-threatening servings of Goodie Mob’s Soul Food and a pre-Hollywood OutKast. Cee-Lo is also a successful solo singer and MC, but is on the radar as of late for writing and producing the guiltily intoxicating pop of the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha.”
It’s hard to put a finger on Gnarls Barkley. St. Elsewhere isn’t quite hip hop, though both Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo are best known for their respective work in the genre. It’s not as if either artist were easily categorized to begin with, and Gnarls Barkley is a fusing of two notably eccentric creative processes.
Throughout the album, hints of Danger Mouse’s work with Jemini and a textured Goodie Mob sound crop up periodically, even in the opener “Go Go Gadget Gospel,” propelled by a strung-out trumpet refrain, bells and whistles. The darkly melodic samples and strange telephone sound effects of “Just a Thought,” Cee-Lo’s musings on suicide, are a reminder that this was produced by the guy that laid an a capella “What More Can I Say” over one of George Harrison’s most recognizable guitar lines (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”).
Cee-Lo’s jazz, soul and pop influences meld together in his oft-conscious lyrics and vocals, which can dip to a respectable tenor. But when he sings, more often than not his voice sounds like Al Green run through a colander: reedy but still emotive. He lets it soar on the title track over langorious, wah-wah guitars and plenty of hi-hat, and even when he raps (albeit infrequently on this record) it’s easy to hear his velvet-tipped syllables as on the crisp “Feng Shui.”
St. Elsewhere boasts, among other strange musical concoctions, a cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” and the beach-bright “Smiley Faces,” a song based on handclaps and tambourines with a shot of ’70s soul funk. “Transformer” is an amalgamation of the duo’s tastes that genuinely fits its title. The ai-yi-yi chorus, the warped Cee-Lo flows – as if Danger Mouse ran his voice through a Yak-Bak – and the tight piccolo motif make for a knockout track.
The only possible downside to Gnarls Barkley is the sheer volume of musical ingredients; sometimes, the songs are overwhelmed by their makeup.
Again, with the potluck of instrumentals, vocals and production effects, it’s obviously difficult to place a name on the pair’s sound.
“I wouldn’t call it schizophrenia,” Cee-Lo sings on one of the numbers, not exactly aiding matters. But when St. Elsewhere is this inventive and entertaining, the search for a name just doesn’t seem that pressing.