Saturday, May 20, 2006

Gnarls Barkley give hip-hop a shot in the arm with St. Elsewhere

Gnarls Barkley
St. Elsewhere
Released May 9, 2006

Rating: 3.75 out of 4

Dan the Automator has made a career out of keeping his mind open. Despite being mostly accredited as a hip-hop producer, he’s managed to branch out, creating for himself a path into alternative genres. Working with an array of singers and rhymesayers for his and Prince Paul’s Handsome Boy Modeling School, the first Gorillaz album, and then with Mike Patton for the seductive Lovage and upcoming Peeping Tom, he’s benefited from exploring other avenues.

Another such producer that seems to be making the same waves is Danger Mouse, eccentric beat-maestro that came onto the scene after creating the controversial “Grey Album”, a mix incorporating the music of the Beatles’“White Album” with rhymes from Jay-Z’s “Black Album”. Though the record was more or less banned by EMI due to copyright issues, it made enough headlines and impressed enough of those who actually heard it to gain Danger Mouse some street cred and, subsequently, some work. And lately, that’s all he’s been doing.

Inheriting the production duties from Dan the Automator, Danger Mouse managed to earn himself a Grammy nomination with his work on the second Gorillaz album, “Demon Days”. Later, he worked with underground rap king, MF Doom, and created the Adult Swim-influenced “The Mouse and The Mask”. That’s just the stuff I know about. He’s everywhere these days and thus we have Gnarls Barkley, his humorously named collaboration with Cee-Lo, hip-hop veteran that made his name trading verses with Goodie Mob. “St. Elsewhere”, named for the 80s TV show, is what their union brought about.

Let me start off by saying that, up to this point, I figured soul music and R&B to be dead. The monotonous crooning and unimaginative production that passes for R&B these days is cold, boring and predictable. With the exception of Jill Scott and maybe some of Mary J. Blige’s earlier work, in mainstream America, these dime-a-dozen “singers” desecrate the very foundation by which they so proudly stand. And, sorry, R. Kelly’s career consists of nothing but sentimental schmaltz and wasted, piss-stained tape. The overall tragedy of R&B is that Marvin Gaye is in fact dead and has yet to be reborn. No matter what anyone says.

But, what drew me to “St. Elsewhere,” was that I was hearing a voice do something other than act like it was singing. It gave me chills when I first heard the title track, which is my favorite song on the album. Cee-Lo sings with a soul that sounds unmistakably like something from the old school. Without knowing what I was hearing (I’d heard the song over the PA system in the local BORDERS), I thought an old vocal had been sampled and tracked over some modern-day beats. It just shows how cynical I’ve become that I find it hard to believe that anyone can still sing this way. On the strength of that one track, I bought the album and really haven’t stopped playing it. I’m listening to it now.

Having said that, “St. Elsewhere” isn’t necessarily a soul album but a genre-infused mixture of past and present. Using hip-hip production as its unifying factor, Danger Mouse explores rock, pop, R&B, gospel, trip-hop and hip-hop, being as interchangeable as his influences probably are. Cee-Lo, being a more than capable singer and rapper, keeps up the entire time. Despite its insistence on keeping things eclectic, it succeeds in sounding like a group effort by relying on its soul elements, namely its vocalist and producer.

Six months before its release, “St. Elsewhere” had been generating a lot of buzz with its single “Crazy,” the first single to hit the top spot based on internet downloads. “Crazy” is a slickly produced crowd-pleaser with Cee-Lo sounding like a latter-day Smoky Robinson. It’s also the most reserved track on the album, which, to me, is the sign of a good album. “St. Elsewhere”, the title track, hits up the high-pitched blues of yore and then flows into a poppy cover of the Violent Femmes’ song “Gone Daddy Gone.” “Smiley Faces” taps the ministry for some spiritual guidance, while “Feng Shui” quickly details the proper do’s and don’ts of the well-publicized Eastern philosophy. Intermittent, loud drums are brought into the bluesy “ Just A Thought” while Cee-Lo admits that he “tried everything but suicide, but it’s crossed his mind.” “Transformer” goes southern hip-hop for its beats and then leads into the bass-driven and trip-hoppy “Who Cares?,” a song based on the musings of indecision and self-doubt. The one time the album tries its hand at thematic weirdness is with the horror-based “Necromancer,” a rather lackluster track that narrates the murder of a girl and the subsequent romance. It’s the only instance where the album kind of saunters off unnecessarily. It gets back on track though with an off-beat blues inspired “Storm Coming” and then the album ends with “The Last Time,” a soulful love track.

With “St. Elsewhere”, Gnarls Barkley successfully pushes hip-hop passed convention, a move that also set OUTKAST apart from the mundane, and goes straight to its influences for material. It’s exactly the sort of wake-up call hip-hop needs, considering how extraordinarily mediocre it’s become. I can only hope that, with every project he picks up, Danger Mouse continues to prosper as the music force he’s become and that Gnarls Barkley keep it really real.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Hughes and Homme rock the Sexy...

Eagles of Death Metal
Death By Sexy…
Reckords Records/Downtown
Released 4.11.06

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Fans are by and large observant. Every subtle nuance, every obvious cliché, every genre-defining detail is absorbed through those geeky and acute sensory intakes, and available for reference whenever they need be withdrawn from the fanboy library. Granted there are fans out there that lack so much imagination that a regurgitated copy of the object of their affections is the best they can do. But, other fans know how to expand. The realization that it’s been seen or done is depressing, but not hopeless. There are ways to improve. If there weren’t, what would be the point?

Knowing that Jesse “The Devil” Hughes was at one point a journalist means that observation is his bread and butter. It’s really no surprise then that he made a rock record and knew exactly what he was doing.

From start to finish, “Death By Sexy…” is a straight-up good time. Hughes and Queens of the Stone Age’s Joshua Homme have put together a record so raw and unpretentious it almost sounds too good to be true. And Homme, inadvertently avoiding passage within the ego-laden walls of Rock Star Dick-dom, stays in the background and allows Hughes to shine. It’s Jesse’s baby, and it’s one sexy motherfucker.

Clocking in at a little less than 38 minutes, “Death By Sexy…” doesn’t necessarily challenge you in any other way than to try and not get caught up in its groove. Commanding your attention with vocals that fall somewhere between puberty and Prince, Jesse “The Devil” Hughes strums through track after track with a confidence that recalls the Little Richard of yore (a name they actually acknowledge within the liner notes). Unlike it’s predecessor, “Peace Love and Death Metal”, “Death By Sexy…” is very focused and more sure of itself. Aside from the audible benefits of better production (by the capable hands of Homme), the Eagles rev ‘em up and churn ‘em out with certainty. It’s almost as if Hughes and Co. used the first album as a rough draft, figured out how they want to sound and now know how to pull it together. It’s not that they’ve gotten out of the garage, it’s that the garage is a two-door this time around. The raw vitality still lives.

If I were to point out any “brilliant” (for lack of a better word) aspects of this record, I would point out the sequencing. It’s perfect. Within the second it takes to press PLAY, the fast-paced “I Want You So Hard” sets the tone and carries you into “I Gotta Feeling (Just Nineteen), a song that maintains the intensity despite the somewhat slowed up tempo. It almost blows its load with “Cherry Cola” but then manages to painlessly hold it back with the slow-rocking “I Like To Move In the Night”. From that point on, the speed fluctuates. Relaxed to rocking, slow to fast; the pace never bores and the formula changes up just enough to keep from sounding tired. Despite its simplistic garage base, it strays here and there, playing with melody and vocalization. Most notable in this regard are the fast-paced and folky “Solid Gold”, the erratic and strange “Ballad Of Queen Bee and Baby Duck” (Distillers’ frontwoman, and Homme spouse, Brody Dalle contributes some vocals), and the psychedelic and somewhat haunting “Eagle Goth” (which could possibly signify a growth that may latch itself upon the next Eagles outing). When all is said and done, you can’t believe it’s over already. It seems to fly by listen after listen. And you have in fact been tapping your foot the entire time.

Overall, “Death By Sexy…” is a thoroughly enjoyable and smartly produced piece of rock n’ roll that really only wants one thing: How about shaking that ass a little?

Hey, Jet! Weren’t you guys trying to do this?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Let the letters begin...


A mission statement of sorts is slowly trying to find its way into this journal and is being overtaken by an extreme case of writer's block. Or, in my case, lockjaw. Suffering from the type of erratic and sometimes over-caffeinated sort of speech that I usually deal with verbally, the written word serves as my clearest form of communication. Unfortunately, after going through the trouble of putting this thing together, I'm unable to find the right words. So, I'll just try and address what the purpose here is:

I love music. Being someone that never had the gift, or patience, to play an instrument, but still having had an addiction nonetheless, I started writing about records when the mood suited me. Having torn through countless cellophane wrappers, and opened many record sleeves, cassette cases and jewel cases; having either heard the unmistakable sounds of brilliance, or the tragically unfortunate kerplunk of yet another wasted dollar or two, sometimes I'll feel the need to write about it. Whatever I write will either be meant to turn people on, or prevent you from misspending your hard-earned cash.

So, essentially, this journal is meant for album reviews, music-related essays and my own little self-indulgent musings about the current state of music. Hope you enjoy.

New Selections — DEAFKIDS, Marisa Anderson, Circuit des Yeux, Moaning, Here Lies Man

Some new and not-so-new selections for June.  DEAFKIDS: " Espiral da Loucura " (via Rarely Unable /  Bandcamp ) Via Ra...