Sunday, May 21, 2006

St. Elsewhere Is Brilliant And Strange

Ever since The Grey Album, Danger Mouse has been on a roll in terms of his collaborations with other artists. In teaming up with Gorillaz to produce their sophomore effort Demon Days, he crafted one of the best albums of 2005. As one half of Danger Doom (the other half being underground rapper MF Doom), he made an Adult Swim-inspired album that was about as goofy and fun as the shows on that late-night block. Now, he and rapper/singer Cee-Lo (formerly of Goodie Mob) have joined forces under the name Gnarls Barkley. St. Elsewhere, their first album together, is as strange, nutty, and brilliant as could be expected.

There's a little bit of everything to be found on St. Elsewhere. The album begins with "Go Go Gadget Gospel," a fast-paced blast of horns, electro beats, and Cee-Lo's gospel-tinged vocals. The song draws you in with its repeated refrain of "I'm free!" That song is immediately followed by "Crazy," the song that took the U.K. by storm. It's an example of doing everything just right. The production is deceptively simple, the lyrics are very good, the sound is crossover-friendly, and it's the perfect single length. While it's the standout track of the album, it's far from the only good song.

"Smiley Faces" is one of my favorite songs on the album. The thundering beat hooks you and the vocals are great. It's one of many songs on the album that address the complex issues of living. In this case, Gnarls Barkley tries to figure out how someone could have a smiling face when there's so much darkness out there: "I notice you smiling/ Out in the sun, having fun/And feeling free/ And I can tell you know/ How hard this life can be/ But you keep on smiling for me." On "The Boogie Monster," Gnarls is fighting worried about a "monster" that won't let him sleep. At the end of the song, it's revealed that "The whole time the monster was me." The electronic-driven "Transformer" features Cee-Lo singing in three different voices as multiple personalities talk to each other.

For all of that, there is some real darkness on St. Elsewhere as well. "Just A Thought" is a song where depression leads to thoughts of suicide: "And I've tried, everything but suicide/ But it's crossed my mind." The song ends with the line "But I'm fine," which shows the state of denial people who are depressed have. If he really was fine, suicide would have never crossed his mind in the first place. Then, things get really strange on the darkly comic "Necromancer." Necrophilia is the subject of this song with lines like "She was cool when I met/ Her but I think I like her better dead."

The first and last sounds on St. Elsewhere are that of a projector. They are especially fitting because this album really captures the spirit of midnight/cult movies. It's strange and subversive but also compelling enough to make you want to listen to it again and again. It tells its story (at least the semblance of a story that's there) in ways that are creative and different but not so different that the possibility for broader appeal is completely lost.

I enjoyed this album immensely and it will probably be on my list of the best albums of 2006. I only wish it was longer. Highly recommended.

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