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Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 April 2008
ImageFor as much as they seemed like the typical gimmick band, an act formed by two comically mismatched artists adopting a jokey moniker and wearing stage costumes that parodied iconic film duos, Gnarls Barkley obliterated all stereotypes with their 2006 hit “Crazy.” A truly transcendent pop song cut from dark chord changes and a desperately soaring chorus, it was three minutes of bliss that was hailed by Top 40 pop fans and indie hipsters alike. By the end of the year, the song had proven so powerful that everyone from Nelly Furtado to the Raconteurs to Charlotte Church had covered it, and the band had achieved cult status, with auteur producer Danger Mouse and R&B heavyweight Cee-Lo earning a following that crossed all demographic and genre barriers. But that said, St. Elsewhere, their debut album, was a bit of a mixed bag quality-wise, more the sound of two friends kicking around previously unexplored ideas in the studio than a fully realized full-length affair. With The Odd Couple, the pair set out to do the impossible. They need to follow up a worldwide hit.

The second Gnarls Barkley album is a far more focused release, a bravely brooding collection of songs that emphasize thematic consistency over sonic sprawl and studio craftsmanship over thrill-a-minute stylistic shifts. No doubt, the novelty of a hotshot outsider producer and a prodigiously gifted soul singer plowing through crates of old Motown and soundtrack LPs looking for just the right samples has greatly worn off, and in lieu of stumbling upon another once-in-a-lifetime hook like the one in “Crazy,” the duo has chosen to make up the difference by sharpening their approach, making an album that relies more on perfectly chosen retro pop textures and subtle nuance than on oversized hooks and powerhouse performances. This is Gnarls Barkley’s headphones album. Continuing their fixation on cinematic references, the album opens with the sound of a film projector springing to life, the whir of the tape providing a clever counterpoint for an album that is mostly formed from samples and loops. Appropriately enough, Cee-Lo plays a similar character throughout, a downhearted, almost masochistic man, who is tortured by feelings of loneliness and abandonment following a breakup. But despite the unflinchingly dark writing, the arrangements often belie the somber tone of the writing, with first track “Charity Case” lurching to life with a mélange of bubbling bass lines, lush multi-part harmonies, and handclaps that mask the story of a man so lonely even his shadow abandons him at night.

The parade of depression continues, with Cee-Lo’s character growing more paranoid and menacing with each successive track. “Got some bad news this morning, which in turn made my day,” he coos ominously on “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul,” with a droning wall of synth textures and murky acoustic guitar runs seething under a layer of lo-fi hiss, echoing the narrator’s fears that he had only been living vicariously through his now ended relationship. He rallies slightly for “Going On,” with church organs, driving beats and epically flailing guitar leads providing a thematic respite, the protagonist declaring himself ready to leave his sadness behind and move on to a better place. But like all of the tracks on this album, this is one laced with self-doubt and fear, with a groaning wall of backing vocals closing the track on a dark note. By the next track, “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster),” he has turned homicidal, with Cee-Lo turning in his best Otis Redding impression as he warns everyone in sight that he’s about to unleash the beast inside.

Those warnings come to fruition in “Would Be Killer,” one of the album’s few moments where the resolutely somber writing reaches self-parody, with the sound of a gun being cocked joined by backmasked loops and Cee-Lo’s most forebodingly affected delivery. “I’ve been interred by evil/so someone best love me right now,” he growls over stuttering beats and a simmering cauldron of synths and moaning guitar lines. But while that track pushes the band to cartoonish lengths of despair, even worse is “Whatever,” a seemingly tossed off bit of Kinksy garage pop, where Cee-Lo adopts a nasally pinched vocal effect as he creates a bratty teen persona. More suitable for a B-side, this kind of track pokes an unfortunately self-effacing hole in an otherwise unified façade.

But despite the occasional misstep, the duo is generally at the top of their game, their experimental edge returning for the oddly tumbling beats and massively layered vocals of “Open Book” and the Zombies-esque harmonies and plaintive acoustic guitar strums of “Surprise” – two tracks that prove Danger Mouse’s incomparable gift for picking perfect samples for Cee-Lo’s deeply soulful performances. In fact, as Danger Mouse’s tastes clearly run toward ‘60s psych-pop, he gives us a rare glimpse at what the great soul singers might have sounded like had they recorded with the California acid pop bands of the era, with “No Time Soon” recreating the hushed intimacy of the Left Banke and “Blind Mary” evoking memories of the Faces with its watery waltz-time hook and sing-songy storytelling. Whatever the case, you won’t likely hear another album that sounds like this.

That said, there are still moments where it’s apparent that the band is simply cruising on their already proven strengths. That’s not to say they’re simply adhering to some paint-by-numbers formula, but as the album goes on it’s hard not to notice that the duo is repeating many of the same melodic and textural tricks, with the choruses swooning and swaying in similarly glorious swirls and some of the snapping drum loops almost interchangeable with each other. Case in point, the murky mélange of flutes and popping beats on “She Knows” cover up a song that is simple enough in its straightforward beauty but that never quite comes into focus. Similarly, the Marvin Gaye turns of “Neighbors” takes a few too many gorgeous minor chord detours to really lock into the groove, and the epic soul pop of “A Little Better” borrows from Stevie Wonder a bit too obviously. Still, that consistency remains the album’s lasting triumph, and any complaints of repetition ultimately dissolve when evaluating the album as a whole.

In the end, The Odd Couple doesn’t feature any moments as singularly affecting as “Crazy,” but their second attempt at album making is undeniably stronger as a whole. In a strange way, the set becomes an album-long extrapolation of the song that made them a success, as they both accentuate and turn down the somber melodic turns, psychological distress and ethereal hues of that track. The sustained focus might grow tiresome for those wanting a more varied or immediate fix, but these songs are hardly inaccessible, with melodies and arrangements that are no less winning when one strips away the occasional narrative excess. Ultimately, despite its shortcomings, The Odd Couple becomes a more than suitable sophomore release, one whose most obvious charms are apparent at first listen and whose subtleties only reveal themselves after concentrated study. In short, it’s the kind of album no gimmick band could make.

Like St. Elsewhere, this is an album that never tries to hide the fact that it is largely sewn together from vintage samples. But that never becomes a distraction, as the crackle of static never blunts the power of the arrangements or of Cee-Lo’s mesmerizing vocals. Further, Danger Mouse’s remarkable gift for pushing everything into the forefront is on full display, as he positions Cee-Lo’s vocals high in the mix while emphasizing bass hooks and drum loops over the background textures. Listen closely and you’ll hear the work of a producer with an intuitive grasp of how to make an album sound both retro and futuristic at the same time, something that might be lost on cheaper stereos. No matter what the equipment, the power of the performances will come through, but it will take better speakers to hear the truly intricate bits.

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