Tuesday, 31 October 2017

St Elsewhere - Gnarls Barkley

Provenance: I was just finishing up my undergraduate degree when 'Crazy' came out and swept all before it. Even if 'Smily Faces' wasn't quite as infectious as its predecessor, the duo of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green appeared poised to go on to do big things.

Gnarls Barkley cultivated an image that was both playful and hip, with enough sonic invention to offset accusations of novelty invited by their penchant for fancy dress. It was also hard to categorise their sound - was it soul, funk, electronica or an unholy fusion of the lot? Whatever, I was suckered in. I remember my friend Darryl being quite tickled at my pride in buying music by a contemporary artist.

I haven't played this album for quite some time, so I'm looking forward to revisiting it.

Review: Well, that was underwhelming.

I'm a bit disappointed in myself, to be honest. Yes, I was young and dumb, I did stupid, crazy stuff at university like subediting the student newspaper and dressing up like Paul Stanley. I'm not proud. But for all my faults and foibles, I thought I had a good ear. Yes, I supposed, there are plenty of pop songs able to get the foot tapping, but I felt I was able to see through the cheap tricks of mere earworms. Well, damn me! Damn me to hell! Because I heard 'Crazy' and thought I was taking a peek behind the veil and observing the fucking future.

In mitigation, I wasn't the only one. Reviewers fell over themselves to acclaim St Elsewhere as a work of rare genius. And hey, maybe by the standards of 2006 it was pretty good. But it wasn't great.

Let's get one item out of the way - 'Crazy' is still a tune. Green's vocals glide over the track's queasy electro-thrum and the chorus has the cavernous majesty of full-bore Isaac Hayes. Sometimes there are albums where the lead single is clearly not the best of the bunch. St Elsewhere isn't one of those albums.

Which isn't to say there aren't glimpses of brilliance elsewhere. Kicking off, 'Go Go Gadget Gospel' takes the listener to church via Lost In Space and later on the Willie Dixon-quoting Violent Femmes alt-rocker 'Gone Daddy Gone' is transformed into a glitchy, shifty laser-zap of unrefined bliss. 'Smiley Faces' was, ah, the follow-up single to 'Crazy'.

Otherwise, everything else sounds flat and dated. I don't know if 'Who Cares?' sounded taut and cool back in the day but now it just feels sclerotic. Almost the entire second half of the album seems hastily conceived and sketched out without ever being finished. 'The Boogie Monster', 'Feng Shui', 'Transformer' and 'Necromancer' go through the motions. What could be - and possibly have been - described generously as 'flourishes' of Morricone, Wu-Tang Clan and the Isley Brothers now sound like the bored daubings of a distracted dilettante. Nothing in the lollop to the finish line leaps out of the speakers or surprises the listener. The little quavering Moog is exactly where you imagine a little quavering Moog would go. This seems to jar with Danger Mouse's reputation as a multiple Grammy-nominated superstar producer, but then you recall that he played midwife to both U2's Songs of Innocence and Red Hot Chili Peppers' The Getaway.

Also, Cee-Lo Green comes across as a particularly unlikeable individual, so I don't give a shit, St Elsewhere is mostly dross.

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