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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

St. Elsewhere

Gnarls Barkley’s album St. Elsewhere is one of the only albums I can remember hearing and absolutely loving right from the beginning. Theirs is a brilliant, almost undefinable sound—heavily and perfectly produced beats by Danger Mouse, running under the staggering wail and low rumble of Cee-Lo’s vocals. It’s music you can’t help but move your body to.

The album begins with the sound of a projector being put on, which adds an element of fantasy to the entire listening experience. We’re immediately suspending disbelief that these are songs that we need to take too seriously. This element of whimsy (with a touch of impending doom) may be the album’s theme, at least instrumentally. The first track, “Go-Go Gadget Gospel” features frenzied horns and incredible key changes. It’s a joyful, manic song, a perfect first taste of this unique sound. It’s the song that grabbed me instantly.

The ubiquitous single, “Crazy,” has running under it a sample from an Italian Spaghetti Western. It’s a biting satire about mental health (“Ha Ha Ha bless your soul, you really think you’re in control”) with a seriously infectious beat. No wonder it was all over the place last summer.

The breadth of the album ranges from the strangely apocalyptic “St. Elsewhere” (“Anywhere you sit you can see the sun/Unfortunately on this island I’m the only one”) to video-game-inspired cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” to the explosive “Smiley Faces.”

There’s a hint of the macabre on a couple interesting songs: “The Boogie Monster” and “Necromancer.” In “Boogie Monster,” Cee-Lo rumbles like a boogie man and the beat creeps along, sounding like a funkier cousin of “The Monster Mash.” Still, you can’t help but dance to it. “Necromancer” is probably my favorite song, if only because of these lyrics: “She was cool when I met her, but I think I like her better dead.” And yes, I think the song is, in fact, about what it sounds like it’s about.

They throw back to an early 90s R&B sound on “Who Cares?” and “Online.” “Who Cares?” features what sounds like a jazz flute, and “Online” has the girl-group background vocals. And the apocalypse theme comes back with a vengeance on “Storm Coming,” which also strikes me as the most epically musical-theater track. The album ends with the sound of the projection ending, and the fantasy is over.

These songs are short and sweet, perfectly produced, strikingly sung and completely satisfying. I hope the huge popularity of “Crazy” does not curse Gnarls Barkley to one-hit-wonderdom. These guys are way too talented for that.

(Sorry, kids. I’m taking the next two weeks off from the column. Mama needs a vacation.)

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