Sunday, March 30, 2008

Gnarls Barkley | The Odd Couple

There are no two ways around it: Gnarls Barkley would be Two-Face/Harvey Dent’s favorite band. There are transfixing (and ludicrous) non sequiturs, often counterpointed with bright arrangements and lyrical despair. Unlike their debut, Gnarls Barkley’s second album The Odd Couple lives solely in the deep end of the ocean. There is a desolate gloom cast above all the songs. The pall is so great that even the jovial moments are disturbing – an undertaker singing “Whistle While You Work.”

The album opens with “Charity Case,” Danger Mouse layering instrument over instrument, only to let them drop at the beginning of the first verse. Though Cee-Lo’s voice is present almost everywhere on the track, including the background vocals, he feels almost absent. It’s in the tone of his vocals, dark and lost, exhausted, gasping for life. Rather than drain the album of energy, this adopted aura powers songs to become portraits of anguish. Or as Bukowski would say, grooves of ordinary madness.

“Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)” (video above, with Justin Timberlake as a VJ) doesn’t stray far from the distress in other tunes, but bumps the BPMs close to defibrillator levels. In fact, British health officials conducted the epilepsy test on the video and it failed. It has since been edited. (Warning: it’s still funky.) But what are we running from? Cee-Lo says there’s “a beast at bay,” but is the beast him? The ascending chords accost and the rapid hi-hat programming resembles a chase without resolve.

Unanswered questions characterize most of the songs. The cheery psychedelia in “Blind Mary” only serves to underscore how twisted the story is while “Neighbors” confronts identity crisis with Cee-Lo’s wails. Both tunes are stories only halfway told. The lack of resolution only confirms the instability of the narrators, but never of the music. No, there isn’t another “Crazy” hit, but who cares? This is pop music of the highest order, paranoia included.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Erykah Badu | New Amerykah, Pt.1: 4th World War

Erykah Badu’s 2008 album New Amerykah, Pt.1: 4th World War is Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On on bad weed. Like that predecessor, this album aims to take a snapshot of the times, frankly depicting inner city struggles, drug habits, fights for freedom, and personal observations, while striving to be uplifting. Where Riot answered Marvin Gaye’s question by being lugubriously accessible and musically based on funky psychedelia, this one is dense, bleak, and all about hip-hop. Producers 9th Wonder (of Little Brother fame), Sa-Ra, and Madlib figure large in the sound of this record.

Multitracked vocals and dusky, paranoid beats populate many of the tunes. “The Healer” and “My People” showcase bombass Madlib beats, laidback concoctions chock full of blips, Eastern strings, and echoed keys. In these tunes, Badu sings of the power of hip-hop to heal and delivers the message to “Hold on, my people.”

The message in the music continues on “Master Teacher,” produced by Shafiq Husayn of Sa-Ra. The bass and drums pulse like a living, breathing organism. Most of the song features lead vocals interacting with the background vocals in call and responses. A recurring motif in the song is “I stay woke,” which, given the context of the rest of the lyrics, suggests a person’s ability not to be taken advantage of while in search of “a beautiful world.” Over Curtis Mayfield-inspired strings, Badu asks, “What if there was no niggas only master teachers now?” The coda of the tune is a soul-jazz groove that rides the cymbals and electric keys. When Badu shifts the accents in her phrasing, the rhythmic evenness is chopped and reconfigured.

Though the album ends with “Telephone,” a haunting requiem for friend, collaborator, and influential producer J Dilla, its 9th Wonder-produced hidden track, “Honey,” almost operates as a saboteur. Why would Badu make “Honey” the first single? Sure, it’s an infectious, bubbly ditty that says nothing (“Honey you so sweet/sugar got a long way to catch you”) compared to the dark, introverted jams that say a lot. But hey, maybe that’s exactly why.
(Photo credit: Marc Baptiste)