Gnarls Barkley CD review [Downtown/Atlantic]

Music Reviews
Gnarls Barkley CD review [Downtown/Atlantic]
Oct 24, 2006, 12:50


I'll admit to being innately suspicious of critical consensus; the impulse to follow the flock just doesn't figure into my best aspirations. But every so often I'll yield and it turns out everyone else WAS right, as was the case with Outkast.

Gnarls Barkley is the matter at hand here with Messrs. Cee-Lo + Danger Mouse being touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread (which I'll grant; a great marketing concept—less work, produces uniformity/conformity, encourages staleness; talking about bread, of course).  Inarguable strong points include Cee-Lo's vocals which are unquestionably powerful, tuneful, oozing with soul, and marked by a lovely, eccentric nasal edge. He's immediately distinctive. Meanwhile, his lyrics tend to steer clear of the empty macho braggadocio or equally pointless romantic cooing so de riguer in the world of contemporary popular music. When he lays those lyrics with that voice inside elaborate vocal orchestrations, ala “Who Cares?” this music just about lives up to its hype-age. By comparison with other stuff on the charts it is dead brilliant.

At the same time however, in most cases, Lo is left effectively marooned by Danger Mouse's underwhelming instrumental setting. Though praised as “minimal” they are perhaps better described as “serviceable”… and just barely so. There are bass sounds in the appropriate places as opposed to bass lines per se. Drum machines either thump dully as per prescribed hip hop convention or clatter witlessly as per Danger's drums and bass roots. No swing, no funk; as Althea and Donna once chanted “No pop, no style.” Other instrumental voices are kept at a minimum—usually a synthesized or sampled flutter of strings or horns. Not enough to register as a tune or a hook—they just signify string-ness to fulfill the formula for such stuff.  Ain't nothing he offers overall that you imagine will be sampled and show up on a thousand other records in the future ala “Funky Drummer.” Not to let Cee-Lo get off scott free—while his lyrics avoid pop music cliché, deep they're not. They'll usually start around a clever idea that is then padded out and extended with filler.

I'd concede that their fashion sense is amusing if obvious (appearing as iconic characters from past blockbuster movies is smarter than Destiny's Child will ever manage—but sampling hits—visual or aural—is not creating, though it can be clever).  I'll also agree that Cee-Lo's one of our finest contemporary singers and song stylists. But here he's basically making the most of half-baked support.  Ultimately St. Elsewhere is pleasant and promising but brilliant? Only by comparison to the artistic and conceptual destitution that rules the pop charts, the field they have chosen to function in. When you compare 'em to what goes on in various realms of under the radar contemporary music—they just ain't so much of a much. [Downtown/Atlantic Records]

-Howard W.

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