Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 3

Gnarls Barkley
St. Elsewhere

It's fitting that "Crazy" became the first single in history to go No. 1 in the U.K. based on download sales alone. St. Elsewhere is, if anything, a product of the Information Age, the work of young minds steeped for years in technology and pop-culture minutiae.

"Go-Go Gadget Gospel" implies a connection to the cartoon "Inspector Gadget," which itself was preoccupied with gizmos. "Transformer" could allude to any number of animated TV shows: "GoBots," "Voltron," "Transformers." In fact, the "I-yi-yi" part of the hook echoes the exclamation of the robot assistant Alpha 5 from "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." Even the duo's name, Gnarls Barkley, would seem to be a contortion of Charles Barkley (though it's not).

Danger Mouse's approach, more "SimEarth" than petri dish, makes full use of electronic breaks and beats, as well as samples, and involves him creating a concept and writing a score for it. Cee-Lo, the actor to Danger Mouse's director, provides the voice that brings the vision to life.

Cee-Lo's soulful tenor sets the foundation for the cinematic vignettes, many of which concern a character's crumbling mental state. "Crazy" introduces this theme in no uncertain terms, starting out, "I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind."

Even if not everybody who downloaded "Crazy" could relate to that feeling, the song was guaranteed to resonate with the masses, thanks to its instantly recognizable low-slung bass run and chorus of ooooooohs in the background that rolls in like fog at a morning funeral.

Similarly, St. Elsewhere taps into related social issues, including suicide ("Just a Thought") and obsessive behavior around belief systems ("Feng Shui"). "The Boogie Monster," a calliope(?)-driven track that begins with a Dracula laugh, is about being so frightened you can't sleep, then realizing you're your own worst enemy because it's all in your head.

And Gnarls Barkley don't shy away from seamier subjects. On "Necromancer," Cee-Lo mixes sex and murder --- just not in that order --- and the result is necrophilia. "She was cool when I met her," he says, "but I think I like her better dead."

In St. Elsewhere, sometimes the heroes are the monsters.


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