Friday, April 14, 2006

Gnarls Barkley: St-Elsewhere review

In the internet-approved pastime of categorizing artists into genres, people might have jumped the gun on Dangermouse. Turning heads with mid 90’s merger casualty Jemini on Lex records, critics were quick to lump him with the indie-rap crowd, a notion reinforced once his work with Prince Po and his Jay-Z/Beatles mashup hit the net. Luckily that last record blew up his spot and earned him production duties with The Gorillaz, resulting in the 05’s single best pop record and breaking him away from the increasingly stale realm of minor-label rap towards artists more suited to his alt-pop stylings. Enter Cee-Lo Green and Gnarls Barkley.

While DM’s work with straight ahead emcees has never been all that impressive and his Jay-Z and MF Doom projects turned out to be all hype, few producers can do more with the thin line between pop and rap than the mouse. Beginning where Demon Days ended, St-Elsewhere blends Hiphop rhythm with pure pop melody giving Cee-Lo’s expressive yelps the perfect home. Fans that saw the potential in Mr. Green’s interesting yet unfocused solo work can breathe a sigh of relief as the tight 40 minute excursion finally delivers on the soul man’s pop promise with a batch of big, hooky songs that defy practically every trend above the radar. While the RIAA continues to whine about people downloading and the labels keep pumping out vapid idol-music that doesn’t connect to anyone with an IQ higher than 12, Gnarls Barkley deliver songs about love, loss, loneliness, proper karmic balance, necrophilia, suicide, transformers and dancing. No wonder the record kicks ass.

Of course, it’s not perfect: the beat on Boogie Monster is another one of the DM-does-Dr-Dre space funk pastiches that ruined Dangerdoom and the misguided Violent Femmes cover Gone Daddy Gone lacks the punchy production truly needed to rock, but as a whole the record is a shockingly confident and refreshing affair. Without a Daman Albarn sized budget, DM wisely goes the lap-pop route giving Cee-Lo backing tracks closer to fellow Georgia popsters Of Montreal than anything MTV approved. The singles Crazy and Smiley Faces are propulsive summer jams, Feng Shui and Transformer poopoo on the notion that 2005 rap has to be drug related and songs like St-Elsewhere, Who cares and On-line just groove. For his part, Cee-Lo goes the extra-mile to add the pysch to psychedelic-soul with insular personal topics missing from the new-millennium booty-shake landscape. With introspective cryptic lyrics out of vogue in today’s landscape, it’s a testament to those in charge that the album never sounds like anything less than a jubilant pop album, balancing the somber content with over the top beats.

While it may not be the best record these guys ever made (Gorillaz and Goodie Mob in case you were wondering), it’s certainly their most fun, accessible and head-turnign, hopefully helping to bridge the gap between meaningful quirkiness and dance-floor ready hedonism. Cee-Lo has a bunch of projects on tap with strip-club maestro Jazzy Pha and funksters Plantlife, but hopefully we can get another one of these Gnarls Barkley records, because as much as the world needs booty club music, it needs whatever the hell this is even more. Rock on.

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