Throwback Thursday Review: St. Elsewhere | Gnarles Barkley

BY EVAN VOGEL
BY EVAN VOGEL

Sometimes you hear music and have an incredibly difficult time piecing together what era it was created in and for. Kanye West did it with 808’s and Heartbreak. Outkast has always done it. And recently, more and more artists like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd are doing the same thing and creating comfortable music that doesn’t sit well under any current genre-title or heading. Somewhere in the middle of all of this lies an artist; well, a fictionally conjured artist that spawned from two musicians whose styles can best be described as frantic, experimental and wandering. This duo is none other than Gnarles Barkley, or individually known as Cee-lo Green and Danger Mouse.

Cee-Lo’s vocals are packed with enough soul to commander an entire legion of gospel choirs and at the same time can sound horrifying enough to make a song that explores necrophilia sound legitimate. Then, we are left to wonder what sort of musical undertones and production these vocals would sound at home over. Surprisingly enough, the answer is: damn near anything. Cee-Lo’s vocals are astounding, but the soundscape that Danger Mouse created for their first foray into full-length LP creation is what pushed this album to a place of intriguing funk-hop that had its debut on their album St. Elsewhere.

The title itself is one of grandeur when considering the exclusive sound of the music. It sounds as fictional and whimsical as its creators’ combined musical persona. The album opens with the familiar sound of a film reel spinning into the opening sequence of a movie followed by one of the most infectious clap, drum and trumpet combinations I’ve ever heard. As if the song, which is called, ‘Go-Go Gadget Gospel’ didn’t already sound unrestrained enough, it has Cee-Lo belting, “I’m Free” on the chorus and it is as, if not more wonderful than you can possibly imagine.

Potentially the biggest or at least most important single of 2006, ‘Crazy’, shot the duo into the skylights of superstardom. Not only did it top charts across the globe, what is even more crazy is the fact that the number one song on the charts was actually good, very good. I’m not trying to say that every number one song is trash but typically, they all follow the same script and generally sound like they were trying to be right where they are. The entire album of St. Elsewhere sounds like it was created out of a huge spark of creativity and its makers never intended to strike chart-topping gold.

Topics covered span from happy to depressing by way of love lost, seeing a monster within yourself and manic schizophrenia. The rapid transition of themes help to maintain the allure of playfulness that is present across the project. Danger Mouse is making it obvious that he is a man who knows his way around samples as well as every moving piece on his beat-making equipment. He changes pitches like they are moods and adds in elements just as quick as he takes them away. The song ‘Transformer’, while it sounds nice, sadly takes away some from the album’s aesthetic because Cee-Lo points out his own versatility and how he can bend his sound to fit into any crevice of sound that is laid before him. Some things are better left unsaid, especially when it is obvious to the listener after hearing the versatility from song to song.

Funky, soulful, futuristic yet reminiscent of bygone eras, this album plays all the right notes at all the right times and ends up being incredibly fun and thought-provoking. Even when sounding more poetic and less energetic, Cee-Lo keeps his engagement to the listener as do Danger Mouse’s beats. Its concepts are both grand and small in scale unlike its epic beats, which consistently sound unique. The Grammy this album received is incredibly well deserved and ironic. It is ironic in the sense that it won for “Best Alternative Music Album” and the term “alternative” seems so cliche for a project that doesn’t fit into any previously specified genre. It is so much more than can be explained by a single term that fits like a high school gym-class pinnie. The last time the world heard from the collective, Gnarles Barkley was back in 2008 and it was another great project that seemed like it was still a signal from a duo that had so much more to give. Then, Cee-Lo made a statement back in 2013 that there would be more music on the way…here’s to hoping they fulfill that promise and that we don’t have to resort to “what if” conversation in the years to come.

9.5

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