CD Review of St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley

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St. Elsewhere
starstarstarstarno star Label: Downtown
Released: 2006
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Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Gnarls Barkley is one of the coolest band names in years. It is my firm belief that you can actually tell a band’s true worth by the name they choose for themselves. In fact, I’ll prove it. Let’s take a quiz. Who’s better: the Killers or the Bravery? Guns ‘n Roses or Warrant? Blur or Chapterhouse? Forget your ears; the answer is literally before your eyes.

Okay, back to Gnarls Barkley. There is talk that Outkast is finished, that the soundtrack to their movie “Idlewild” will act as the band’s swan song. And while that would certainly be a shame, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, now that we have Gnarls Barkley. A collaboration between producer Danger Mouse – who’s carved out a mighty nice career for a guy whose first well-known work violated every copyright law known to man – and onetime Goodie Mob singer Cee-Lo Green, Gnarls Barkley’s debut, St. Elsewhere, is one groovy, crazy little record. And I do mean little: there may be 14 songs, but only one comes within spitting distance of four minutes. Not that you’ll notice, never mind care.

So let’s just go out and state the obvious by saying that “Crazy” – did you see their awesome performance of the song on the MTV Movie Awards, with everyone dressed as “Star Wars” characters? – is quite possibly the single of the year. It’s a straight-up old-school soul groove with a powerhouse vocal from Cee-Lo. “Smiley Faces,” meanwhile, is Motown on ecstasy, with Danger Mouse slipping synth lines into the background that can only be described as catlike (mew). “Just a Thought” appears to be a plaintive ballad at first, and then Danger Mouse’s thunderous drum track hits, and suddenly one wonders whether the Chemical Brothers can explain their whereabouts when this song was recorded. Then there’s the all-too-brief “Feng Shui,” which sounds like a De La Soul tribute band. A very, very good De La Soul tribute band.

Some pretty diverse influences in that paragraph above, which would suggest that the album is a hodgepodge of styles with no real focus, but that suggestion would be dead wrong. Indeed, let’s go two better: “Transformer” is surely what the O’Jays would put to tape after finishing a mountain of coke, and “Gone Daddy Gone,” yes, is a cover of the Violent Femmes song. All totaled, that’s ‘70s soul, ‘80s alt rock, and ‘90s hip hop, with a definitive ‘00s swerve. There’s seemingly nothing these guys can’t do.

Still not convinced? How about this: I’m a white guy in his late 30’s that’s generally bored to tears by what currently stands for black music in any form (give me Public Enemy or give me death). This rapper wants to shoot that rapper, another guy starts a “feud” with a supposed rival (news flash: no one gives a shit about feuds anymore)…it’s all drama club bullshit, which suggests that Tupac Shakur, the mother of all drama club bullshitters, may indeed be the prophet many people claim him to be. But the bottom line is that I simply want something I can sing or dance to, and St. Elsewhere is both of those things in spades. It would be the ultimate putdown to call the album black music for old white people, so perhaps I’ll take a different approach: Gnarls Barkley is proof of the limitless potential of hip hop and soul, and simultaneously an indictment of how few artists are actually trying to tap that potential. Nope, I still sound like a racist, don’t I? Well, screw you, I’m not. Gnarls Barkley rules, and I wish there were more bands like them.

~David Medsker