Man, there are so many reasons to love Gnarls Barkley it's practically impossible to know where to start. Reviews are usually daunting because you're not sure what to say; this one's going to be tricky simply because there's so much to get through!
For the uninitiated, Gnarls Barkley are this year's very own hip-hop dream team. Production duties are handled by DJ Danger Mouse
, who is quietly becoming the best producer in the world. He's perhaps still most famous for being the mastermind behind the world's most notorious bootleg, The Grey Album (an inspired mash-up of Jay-Z
's Black Album
and The Beatles
' White Album
), but he's also the man behind the music for the last Gorillaz
album, Demon Days
. You might also be interested to know that he started his career doing remixes for - of all the bands! - Neutral Milk Hotel
. Vocal duties go to Cee-Lo Green
, who you may or may not know from Goodie Mob, vague affiliations with Outkast
, and two acclaimed solo releases.
"Crazy". We'll start there. Song of the year? If it's not, then we are in for one hell of a treat when someone tops it. In fact, this is potentially the song of the decade (hell, commercially, it already is in England). This is everything we could have hoped for in a collaboration between these two and more - haunting backing vocals, a smooth, funky bassline, strings lifted straight from the Motown bag of tricks, absolutely fantastic lyrics ('Who do you, who do you think you are? Ha ha ha.....bless your soul....you really think you're in control?), a melody to die for, and an absolutely stunning performance from Cee-Lo. I've heard this guy rap before, but you wanna hear him sing
. Man's got soul like you wouldn't believe. Yeah, this is sheer Motown, but I am not exaggerating when I say that it stands up to all but the very best songs released with that label's prestigious imprint.
In fact, maybe the only thing to be found on St. Elsewhere
more mindblowing than that song is the fact that the rest of the album stands up to it. Two songs in particular give it a run for its money. The album's sole cover, Violent Femmes
' "Gone Daddy Gone", sees Danger Mouse returning to his indie roots. It's quite a faithful cover in all honesty, but at the end of the day it's a great song given to a great singer. Surely even the Femmes would now admit that this is now the definitive version. And then there's the mighty "Just A Thought", a beautiful, edge-of-sanity ballad that could sit right alongside Notorious BIG
's "Suicidal Thoughts" on a mixtape just fine. Danger Mouse throws all sorts of things at the track - clattering, DJ-Shadow
-esque drums and mandolins both feature heavily - but he;s never less than sensitive to Cee-Lo's sentiments as he croons 'essentially I'm an animal, so just what do I do with all the aggression? Well I've tried, everything but suicide, but it's crossed my mind....' Cee-Lo ends the song with the kiss-off '....but I'm fine'. Crucially, it sounds like denial. To call this song harrowing may be overstating the case, but not by much.
The rest of the album is considerably less immediate than those three cornerstones. It only really has a sonic precedent in Demon Days
, but the spirit is entirely Danger Mouse's own. It's not hard to tell that this is the first project he's been involved in that has truly been his own, because he takes every opportunity imaginable to drive his point home; namely, that DJ Danger Mouse has just arrived in the major leagues, big time.
The masterplan? Turning hip-hop upside down. That is as succinct as I can be describing the 75% percent of St. Elsewhere
that probably won't be released as singles. This is either the American answer to Tricky
or the mainstream twin to DJ Shadow's Endtroducing....
, in that all these records are indisputably hip-hop albums, but they also distort the art-form beyond almost all recognition until it becomes something else entirely - the private domain of the producer. Cee-Lo helps that impression by not rapping. At all. But where both Tricky and DJ Shadow's worlds were introverted, druggy, murky, and dense, DJ Dangermouse here has created hip-hop that is admittedly mildly insane and, on first listen, somewhere between 'weird' and 'totally ***ed-up', but also a huge amount of fun.
On paper, the production job is a kitchen-sink affair, since just about every trick, genre, and/or instrument in the book has been shoehorned into this album somewhere
. But you just don't notice that unless you go looking for it, so tasteful and subtle is DM's touch. Again, just like Maxinquaye
, this is an album that will have you constantly discovering new things for months. Take album closer "The Last Time" - the organ here could possibly have been sampled from "The Only One I Know" by the sadly-not-defunct The Charlatans, and the drums could have come from Eric B & Rakim
's "I Ain't No Joke". But then, throughout, Cee-Lo's harmonising with himself like he's a one-man Drifters, and the cavernous reverb makes the whole thing sound like futuristic gospel. And there's some kind of restless electronic melody riding throughout. Oh, and I'm sure I hear sleigh bells. Things are dropping in and out of the mix all the way through, like a Steve Reich
work condensed into 3 minutes and 25 seconds (and that's the second longest song on here - there is not a SECOND of filler), but none of it matters. All that connects is the groove, the same 70s soul groove that carries the whole album. The same groove that gets you over the initial shock at the apparent oddness of Gnarls Barkley's vision, and eventually earns you a golden ticket into their world. And that, right there, is STILL one of the most normal songs on display here. Why not try "Go Go Gadget Gospel", "Transformer", or "The Boogie Monster" on for size?
Have I said enough yet? I'll make it clear: if people aren't still discovering this album 20 years down the line, then we have failed as a generation to bring our children the best music of our era. It really is that simple. Although I still just about prefer the Arctic Monkeys album on a personal level, this is truly the record of the year.
Within The Genre - 5/5
Outside The Genre - 4.5/5
Recommended Downloads -
Just A Thought
Gone Daddy Gone