What's So Crazy About Gnarls Barkley's Second Album? If You Believe Them, Everything.
How many times have you heard a music snob say they hated something only to retract it almost immediately with the modification, "Well, I don't hate it--I'm just sick of it"? Maybe not many; maybe too many. There's a good chance that if you've heard this line over the past couple years it referred to Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," which is perfectly understandable. People really did get sick of that song, really didn't need to hear it again for a while; how could it be otherwise? Like creeping vines crawling up the walls of mass culture, it was uncontrollably everywhere.
That in itself was part of its achievement. It used to be that, in pop-music terms, songs that topped the charts equaled "culture" and everything else equaled "subculture." Now, with nearly everything targeted to a niche market, big pop hits seem like just another subculture. Even if, way back when, hits weren't chosen by "everybody"--see every payola scandal going back to rock 'n' roll's beginnings--they could feel like they were. Now a No. 1 hit can feel like it was selected by a subcommittee, or maybe a convention of superdelegates. Payola likely plays its part here, too, but not enough to be a particularly convincing scapegoat, especially when anyone with a web connection can find out the iTunes Top 10 albums in seconds--which is, funny enough, as of this writing, topped by none other than Gnarls Barkley.
The Odd Couple (Downtown/Atlantic), Gnarls Barkley's second album, is the latest in what will be a long line ending in a point: the self-leak, for money. Radiohead wasn't the first band to issue its own work as a download and charge nominally for it, but up to last October it was the hugest, and when Nine Inch Nails and the Raconteurs took the lead, followed in short order by Gnarls Barkley selling its new work online two weeks before the announced release date, it wasn't so much rewriting the rules as changing the oil. They still threw several months' work into advance promotion--the "story" of the new album, usually something along the lines of the "lead singer got a haircut and it represents a major change in artistic direction," the sort of catnip to press outlets both major and lesser: Why do you think so many middling artists make the covers of so many middling "lifestyle" magazines? Besides the questionable tastes of lifestyle-mag editors, that is.
This puts The Odd Couple in a kind of "plus/and" position: Advances were out well ahead of street date to facilitate the inevitable cover stories and lead reviews, but the people get to decide what they think before the reviews come out. Biz-wise, this is probably a win-win, especially given that by the end of the year this sort of thing will stop being an "event" and fall back into business as usual.
Oh yeah: Gnarls Barkley is two people, singer/rapper Cee-Lo and producer/DJ Danger Mouse, who famously like things other than the hip-hop they made their names on, and this project is their way of expressing it. Especially compared to a wan hip-hoppers-trying-other-things enterprise like RJD2's The Third Hand, Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse deserve major credit for not approaching their work as anything altogether different than what they were doing before. Not that you'd mistake The Odd Couple for Goodie Mob's deep-swinging, `70s-rooted Soul Food; Gnarls Barkley's primary touchstone is still the kind of '80s new wave that snuck up and became the new classic rock.
Danger Mouse's beats scurry as much as they bounce or even rock, and his production is both more rote and more opulent than on the duo's St. Elsewhere debut: "She Knows" runs on a faded backdrop of flute and chimes that beckons the listener closer instead of claiming it outright, and the slow-mo "Would Be Killer" conjures a playful eeriness. Cee-Lo's lyrics, even more than before, aspire to pure id: "Whatever" is a parody of a petulant teenager, fine as far as it goes, but not much further. "Surprise" is a blatant lyrical rewrite of Elsewhere's "Just a Thought": slyly depressed musings with a jaunty tune and, in this case, a wild vocal performance.
"Blind Mary" carries the self-loathing to self-mocking extremes: Mary doesn't know Cee-Lo is ugly, which suits Cee-Lo fine. (It could be a Bizarro World B-side to Brad Paisley's "Online.") Funny enough, the best song here is both the most upbeat and the first single: "Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)," a brisk burst of pre-funk show R&B, the kind that a band can vamp on while the lead singer parries with a live audience.
Most of The Odd Couple feels like a reheat of St. Elsewhere. But "Crazy" sounded a little thin at first, too; it wasn't till the greater public got its hands on it that the song sounded as major as it was. Maybe that will happen to The Odd Couple and maybe it won't. But Gnarls Barkley probably has the right idea in letting the marketplace decide. H
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