MGF Reviews Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple

Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
Atlantic (3/18/08)
Hip-hop / Neo-soul / Alternative

Watch, next album they add a third member and call it Three’s Company.

Almost two years after the Summer of “Crazy”, Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse are back. If you were living under Iraq in the summer of 2006, you missed the best single of the decade—an ode to schizophrenia with a positively hypnotic bass groove and a falsetto soul croon not heard since the glory days of the Delfonics. Gnarls Barkley were immediately the hot new thing of 2006 and any music rag worth its weight named “Crazy” the Song of the Year. St. Elsewhere, Gnarls Barkley’s debut album, cemented Danger Mouse as the Bob Dylan of hip-hop producers in the double-0s. An unabashed music geek, Danger Mouse lets his samples dictate the mood of his piece. He makes atmospheric soundscapes that can make you dance while they make you think, and his songs all hark back to a music style of days gone by to which Johnny F*cktone and his gangsta-wannabe boys would never give a second thought. Add to that the truly possessed wail of Cee-Lo Green. His pipes are some of the only truly unique on the radio these days, and in R&B period. A unique voice does not a true artist make, though, oh au contraire; lyrically Green establishes his bona fides by releasing an album chronicling his battles with depression and taking the kind of deep, sometimes disturbing, often beautiful look inside his own mind that you NEVER hear in a genre so preoccupied with machismo as hip-hop.

With St. Elsewhere Gnarls Barkley set the bar for experimental hip-hop and became one of the most successful acts of 06 in the process. For the first time in forever, Gnarls Barkley had made being a geek cool in the worlds of hip-hop and R&B.

Two years have since passed, and Gnarls Barkley are back with The Odd Couple. This time around, the boys have found their inspiration in the 1960s. Recently, in a column I referred to Danger Mouse as today’s answer to Phil Spector. I’ll show my cards and admit that I only made the analogy in the absence of any other super-producer to whom to compare him (and George Martin would have been too obvious, what with the Grey Album and all).

On The Odd Couple, Mouse takes that analogy a step further, because several of the songs have a vibe similar to Spector’s work with The Crystals or The Ronettes. “Whatever” most specifically captures the Spector vibe; it’s a vamp similar to the first album’s “The Boogie Monster”. Cee-Lo rocks a punk sneer in a snotty little number that takes his low-key depression to its next logical step: passive aggression. See also the Turtles-inspired “Surprise” and hazy mellow “Blind Mary”. These two are similar-sounding and both at times feel like they’re using ’60s pop as a gimmick, rather than an influence. Too many tracks on this record start to feel a like a Xerox of a Xerox, really. While “Would Be Killer” is held together by some powerful vocals from Green, the spooky-horror lyrical theme and pseudo-industrial back-beat give this slower-paced jam too much of a sense of gloom to keep the flow of the record from running a little dry. “Neighbors” suffers from much of the same problem, and “No Time Soon” went completely past me, without even trying to stick.

However, a number of songs are saved by a truly top-notch quality vocal by Green. “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” has soul to spare, and the lyrics throw down the interpersonal gauntlet last left on St. Elsewhere. “Open Book” shares some voicebox stretchers from Cee-Lo with a sample of a choir that acts as his Greek chorus—commentating on the lyrics with dramatic oohs and aahs. The number of gospel-choir and vocal group samples give this album a Kennedy-era soul sheen that boosts its appeal to the average Joe and keeps the groove going. The album opener “Charity Case” is built around a vocoder female voice sample that gives the track a techno edge to its groove; the gauntlet might be thrown down for Kanye West and Daft Punk. First single “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)” takes the frenetic jungle/acid beats that the first album’s “Go Go Gadget Gospel” and “Transformer” used so well and transfers them to the vocal melody; it’s a dancefloor anthem for all the club kids at their night’s Ecstasy peak. The last track on the album has an almost cinematic feel. “A Little Better” is a sunstroked slow groove soaked in bongwater. There’s a little Dusty Springfield in it, and a Southern chillin’ vibe that belies their Atlanta roots. It’s a perfect outro, and it feels like sunset in the heat of summer.

Lest I sound too enthralled, let me tell you now that The Odd Couple is a grower, not a shower. Danger Mouse’s trippy soundscapes and Cee-Lo’s cerebral lyrics took me a few tries to really absorb. This album stands in the shadow of St. Elsewhere and there’s no equivalent “Crazy” to prop it up (although “A Little Better” comes close, sezzeye). I’m sure that someone might be ready to declare this album the “sophomore slump” for Gnarls Barkley, and in the Lord-of-the-Flies-as-economic-model world that is the music biz, that doesn’t bode well. Don’t fret, churren. The Odd Couple isn’t a misstep, it’s just one for the catalogs. Gnarls Barkley are building a career, and this record is a progression.