Review: Gnarls Barkley’s “The Odd Couple”

Mar 26, 2008 2:39pm

Two years ago alt-hip-hop wizard Danger Mouse (who made his name blending the music of Jay-Z and the Beatles) and former Goodie Mob rapper/singer Cee-Lo joined forces to form Gnarls Barkley.  Probably to their great surprise, it shot them both to much higher levels of fame, thanks mostly to their infectious single “Crazy.”  That song was so popular in fact that it was covered by everyone from Nelly Furtado to singer/songwriter Ray LaMontagne. Their genre-bending album, “St. Elsewhere” also sported a nifty cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone.”  You have to admire a group that introduces hip-hop heads to the wonderfully twisted music of Gordon Gano.  (What’s next? I’d like to hear Andre 3000 cover “Add It Up,” frankly!) Does their new album, “The Odd Couple,” live up to the high praise of its predecessor?  The answer is both yes and no.  Yes, in the way that it is very much more of the same which ultimately should please many fans.  No, in the way that it is very hard to hit the same nerve twice and get the same level of results.  In other words, the ultimate shock of Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse reinventing the boundaries of what people expect out of them has passed.  It’s all good, though.  At 39 minutes, much like “St. Elsewhere,” it’s about half the length of your average, bloated modern hip-hop and R&B record, but then again, this album isn’t going to please hip-hop purists expecting Cee-Lo to bust out a few verses.  He doesn’t rap on the disc, covering the whole affair with his gospel-infused croon instead.  (The first album at least had him rap on “Feng Shui.”) Also, the experimental electronic touches are more likely to please forward-thinking pop and rock fans.  The disc has plenty moments which could give the duo more hits.  Most of the high-points are backed by pseudo-go-go, Motown-esque backbeats.  “Surprise” plays like a double-time bossa nova during the verses and then raves up to glorious heights.  “Going On” is a similar organ-fueled dance party, mixed with a guitar sample from the 60′s psychedelic rock band Please.   I can imagine this being a huge hit. The actual single, “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster),” finds Cee-Lo pleading “Run children! Run for your life!” as if he is leading a gospel choir away from the devil. MTV reportedly had some issues with the flashing lights in the track’s video.  If you haven’t seen it, it is pretty hip and innovative despite a cameo (in the video only and not the song) from Justin Timberlake. The ending can be rather blinding though, and quick flashing strobe lights can cause epileptic seizures which was sited as a reason for MTV’s decision.  Often times Cee-Lo comes off like this generation’s Al Green.  Check out how buttery-smooth he is on “Whose Gonna Save My Soul.” On “Would Be Killer” he takes on his best sinister growl and sings over an ominous groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on an old Gravediggaz record.    “Open Book” takes a typical R&B melody and places it atop a radically skittering drum-beat.  It sounds like drunken drum ‘n’ bass.  Combine that with the tormented yelling in the chorus and you have something challenging and interesting.  Deep down, Gnarls Barkley’s appeal may lie in the fact that darkness and depression seem to be recurring themes.  Cee-Lo’s level of angst here is the kind you usually are more to find on rock albums.  “Whatever” sounds like it was written to make fun of bratty teenagers.  There’s a knowing mocking quality in Cee-Lo’s delivery. “No Time Soon” is gentle and soulful while still effectively cool and skittery.  “She Knows” takes a retro-jungle beat, and smoothly merges it with a nice flute line.  In comparison “Blind Mary” is straightforward until you pay attention to the weird and interesting keyboard work in the background.  “Neighbors” with its near trip-hop drift could turn it into a left-field hit.  The record’s closer “A Little Better” is also a keen highlight. It’s an effective walking story-teller.  It shows just how strong a performer Cee-Lo is.  He demands attention.  He’s an old-school talent for the new-school generation.  His earthy, deeply soulful delivery holds up surprisingly well next greats of the past like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke.  “The Odd Couple” takes Gnarls Barkley to much darker places than some fans might expect, but it effectively continues the duo’s journey to blend genres and play with musical conventions.  This is no sophomore slump.  This is a bold second chapter which challenges in the best ways.  It is slightly harder than “St. Elsewhere” to digest at first, but in a few years it might be considered every bit as important.  Gnarls Barkley seem to like to name their albums after classic television shows.  (I wonder what Neil Simon thinks of their latest choice.)  What they should call their third album?  My vote: “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.”  Hmmmm.  On second thought, maybe not.

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