Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere Review
by Patrick Muldowney
The world of rhythm and blues, hip hop, funk and soul has found its first definitive home since the heyday of Motown. Atlanta is the residence of Outkast, and now Gnarls Barkley, the two most popular innovators in their genre. Gnarls Barkley, a "debut" album, is only a first in name because Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo are decorated veterans of music, but it is definitely a creation worthy of all its accolades because it should add to, if not redefine, the careers of these two artists. For example, if I was an upcoming artist seeking a producer who would maintain the integrity of my music, Danger Mouse would now top my list, which would be a beautiful relief to a shirtless Pharrell dancing and singing all over your hit with thongs grinding up on his puny physique.
St. Elsewhere convincingly reveals the vocal prowess of Cee-Lo, or Thomas Callaway, and his range is astoundingly wider than he has ever shown. "Smiley Faces" could be tracked alongside "Ain't That Peculiar" on a mix, which is a high compliment to the quality of the song, considering that nobody should place R. Kelly or Brian McKnight in the breadth of Marvin Gaye. From witnessing the recent performance of Gnarls Barkley on the MTV Movie Awards, the vocals are not a trick of production either, as Cee-Lo may have even sounded better live dressed up as Darth Vader. From hearing "Crazy", and how incredible it sounded with a full band of top musicians, I would consider this the premiere act to witness this summer. No surprise that you would have to be at a huge festival (Lollapalooza, Fuji) to have that chance.
Once again deviating from the norm, St. Elsewhere features a cover that would not generally appear on the radar for a soul hop act. Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone" is the unexpected track, and what makes this even more shocking is how true they are to the original. For a cover, it manages a balance seldom achieved, in that most bands either are too much the same or so different that the intent defies reason. Here, you know it's not the Femmes, but it contains an identical tempo and delivery.
I miss the strings and urban bustle reflected in the rhythm section of many 70s hits. It's not tough or hard as we now define it, but it is indicative of most of our daily lives, in that it is moving fluidly and rhythmically. We are a quick service nation, and so many of us are accustomed to this, we do not even notice, which makes this music as American as Classic Rock, or any genre which has sustained popularity. Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo, to their credit, help bring this back to the current pop world. "Feng Shui", in its brief moment, exemplifies how this could easily be present in hip hop, just as acts like Outkast and Digable Planets has intermittently proved on previous tracks.
Listening to St. Elsewhere is a reminder of the roots of rock and roll, and what is possible in music if the past is included in our present developments. It should be a value to all fans of rock and rap music, unless you've boxed yourself in to strictly classic, metal, or club music. With most any album that attempts to transgress the borders of genre, it has moments that are less appealing (and probably to a varying degree of listeners), but the overall impact of St. Elsewhere on music should be heard and felt in years to come.
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