Monday, March 24, 2008
Album Review: The Odd Couple
This review was originally published on North By Northwestern
Every summer belongs to a song. In 2006 that song was Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Their debut album St. Elsewhere was a monument of originality, with rapper Cee-Lo delivering the most introspective lyrics of his career backed by DJ Danger Mouse's ever-psychedelic production. The mystique surrounding the duo increased as they always performed live or did photo shoots in costume, choosing never to appear as themselves but as caricatures. As with any hot, critically-acclaimed debut, expectations were unnaturally high for Gnarls' second album. Their sophomore effort The Odd Couple isn't a great leap forward for the duo, but it never really had to be as it delivers solid, far above average hip-hop.
Ever since Danger Mouse shook up the music world with The Grey Album, he's been providing amazing beats for anyone and everyone who wanted his help. His production on the second Gorillaz album Demon Days elevated the fake animated band out of being a kitschy retread, and he's never laid down a bad beat for Gnarls Barkley. He continues his amazing production on The Odd Couple with tracks like "No Time Soon" and lead single "Run." The latter has production value not unlike old songs on American Bandstand, and fittingly the video (featuring a cameo from a wigged Justin Timberlake) is a modern take on an American Bandstand live performance. His ability as a producer has always been an almost unthinkable number of sounds over each other, and not simply using them superfluously. Every little sprinkle in the background fills its place for a purpose; Danger Mouse paints tracks like a painting on canvas, filling every spot with paint to create a full landscape.
Cee-Lo's voice mixes well with the beats, except for his nasally whine on the album's one indisputable clunker "Whatever." Where Danger Mouse upped his game and kept the punchy beats coming, Cee-Lo delivers pretty much in the same way he did on Gnarl's debut, and there's no standout track here like "Crazy" was back in 2006. He's always been a better singer than a rapper, and the gospel-like quality of his wailing voice give the duos songs a nice tinge of James Brown to them. The sound here is much more muted than it was on their debut, with Cee-Lo crooning more instead of hitting swooping highs. The Odd Couple is an album to cruise to, not an album for a dance party.
The album title isn't really an accurate description of the duo or their music. Fat man/thin man duos have been around since black and white television, and have even made the transition into space with C-3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars, and Danger Mouse has coupled his beats with numerous different sources and proven they match up together well. Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse have always sought to distance themselves from normality. They claim their name has nothing to do with Charles Barkley, never appear as themselves, and presume to be an odd couple. That they are unsatisfied with being normal is an admirable desire as musicians continually looking to better themselves and perfect their art, but at some point trying to say you're so much different from everyone else gets a little tired.
Gnarls Barkley are unlike any other hip-hop group, rapper, or producer making music today, but even they can't make a classic twice. The Odd Couple a great second record, it just isn't odd, groundbreaking, or eye-opening the way St. Elsewhere was for the industry. That isn't to say that The Odd Couple isn't solid, but somewhere down the line being original in the same way for too long could lead to a little too much monotony. Nobody wants to see that happen, so here's hoping the duo have a few more tricks up their sleeves for the next go-round.