If you want an example of how the internet has now become embraced by record companies after years of ‘downloading is killing home music’ scares, look no further than Gnarls Barkley. Their debut single Crazy went straight to number one before a hard copy was even released, relying instead of a record number of internet downloads and writing themselves into music history.
Crazy was one of those rare records that you just knew would be a hit the moment you heard it – not just any old hit, but one of those songs that would become ubiqitious as the months wore on. A winning blend of jerky beats, sweet soulful vocals and mournful string sections, it sounds as fresh and exciting now as it did when it soundtracked that Radio 1 advert all those months ago.
But are Gnarls Barkley any more than Adamski and Seal for a new generation? The combination of a studio bound wizard (Danger Mouse, the man behind the extraordinary Beatles/Jay Z mash up The Grey Album and Demon Days by Gorillaz), and the flamboyantly gifted vocalist (Cee-Lo, a contemporary of Out-Kast and former leader of Atlanta rap pioneers The Goodie Mob) has been tried before with varying degrees of success, but the signs are good if St Elsewhere is anything to go by.
They certainly won’t be one-hit wonders for sure. Smiley Faces is just as infectiously bouncy as Crazy, Danger Mouse laying down a Motown-like beat underneath Cee-Lo’s extraordinary voice – it’s got the words ‘number one single’ etched all through it. The electro-pop reworking of Violent Femmes‘ Gone Daddy Gone is another highlight, giving a dance sheen to the song’s angular, almost Bloc Party-ish rhythms. It’s a good example of how and why Gnarls Barkley have managed to equally appeal to both indie kids and dance fans.
Yet don’t be fooled by the ostentatiously good-times vibes scattered in part on St Elsewhere. This is a deeply schizophrenic album, one with dark moments bubbling threateningly away just under its surface. Boogie Monster (the one track that really brings to mind Danger Mouse’s work with Gorillaz) ominously talks of “a monster in my closet” while the excellent Just A Thought mulls on the unlikely (for a hip-hop track) topic of suicide.
Sometimes, the dark side becomes a little too dark for comfort. Necromancing is a very unsettling song about necrophilia which treads a very thin line between Tricky‘s more extreme moments on one side and unsavoury misogyny on the other. At other times, the studio trickery and inventiveness all becomes a bit too much – the irritating Transformer sounds like a gang of children high on Sunny Delight shouting at you for two minutes, while the opening Go Go Gadget Gospel could well put off casual listeners as the chaotic backbeats and Cee-Lo’s frantic vocal just all sounds too busy. It’s a blessed relief when the familiar opening bars of Crazy kick in soon afterwards.
Whether St Elsewhere is just a one-off side project between two exciting talents remains to be seen, but it would be a shame if that were the case. Although this isn’t a flawless album, it will undoubtedly be a huge hit and keep many people company through the long hot summer months ahead.