Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Restlessness Vs. Constancy

Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple (Warner, 2008)

A couple of years ago, I had a chat with Joe Goddard from Hot Chip in which he expressed his fears that the then (and still) ubiquitous ‘Over and Over’ might prove to be an albatross around his group’s neck. Happily, he was proved completely wrong, but the stellar success of ‘Crazy’ could well be a poisoned chalice for Gnarls Barkley. Even though that claustrophobic, paranoid song was hardly positive, its bright sound no doubt aided its rise to the top of the charts, and many listeners struggled with the darker elements of the duo’s superb debut album.

Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo have ratcheted up the tension a few more notches on this hastily prepared successor. In doing so, they may well have bravely savaged their reputation as hitmakers extraordinaire. In the process though, they have made a provocative, challenging and adventurous album far removed from the world of contemporary R&B or hip hop. There are elements of psychedelia and garage rock as much as classic soul, all refracted through the distinctively modern prism of Danger Mouse’s inventive production. This is a record that requires a good deal of patience, but those who invest time in it may well find it to be a major statement.

In spite of its flippant title, ‘The Odd Couple’ is a concentrated examination of the darker recesses of human psychology. Cee-Lo’s lyrics are extraordinarily bleak, and the only respite seems to come with the jaunty pop of ‘Blind Mary’. Everywhere else, he’s adopting the persona of someone damaged, depressed, questioning or even psychotic. If the pressures of 21st Century Living are fuelling a stark rise in stress, anger and clinical depression, then Cee-Lo documents all these problems in blackly comic fashion here.

Thematically, ‘The Odd Couple’ represents a brilliant exploration of extreme feeling (regrets, secrets, bestial urges, self loathing), deploying the force of rhetorical exaggeration. On the opening ‘Charity Case’, Cee-Lo masterfully presents the confession of a character who helps others with their problems in order to avoid his own. ‘Oh can’t you see’, he implores ‘if I help somebody it’s mercy for me’. But the reality is not so simple – ‘even my shadow leaves me alone at night’, he confesses, ‘because I need to take my own advice’. He explores a similar theme on the palpably desperate ‘Who’s Gonna Save My Soul Now?’ (‘how could this be – all this time I’ve lived vicariously?’). On ‘Would Be Killer’, he goes much further, inhabiting the persona of a merciless man with a desire to hurt – a man who could (would?) murder. The superb ‘Neighbours’ is an audacious exploration of envy and greed.

Musically, this is disorientating, imaginative and fervent. The skittering, stuttering backing track Danger Mouse crafts for ‘Open Book’ creates high end drama and suggests confusion and frustration. More simply, the reconstructed psychedelic soul vibe of first single ‘Run’ imbues it with sinister urgency. ‘Surprise’, with its propulsive rhythm, is also highly theatrical. ‘Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?’ initially seems to resemble the trademark Portishead sound, but closer inspection reveals the main source of inspiration might be an earlier landmark of musical history, Syl Johnson’s sublime civil rights track ‘Is it Because I’m Black?’, the rolling rhythms and exposed vocal of which this track seems to echo.

The only moment that doesn’t quite ring true here is the self-mocking parody ‘Whatever’, for which Cee-Lo adopts a pinched nasal whine for comic effect. The lyrics rely too heavily on an obvious rhyme scheme, and the music is an uncharacteristic basic stomp. Pretty much everywhere else though, the combination of Cee-Lo’s increasingly forceful bellow and Danger Mouse’s elaborate arrangements make for a winning, if not necessarily immediate combination. The integration of the excesses of Cee-Lo’s lead vocals with layers of backing vocals is particularly successful, and much of ‘The Odd Couple’ sounds more confrontational than resigned as a result.

With each listen, ‘The Odd Couple’ sounds closer and closer to a masterpiece. Those yearning for the immediacy of ‘Crazy’ might be disappointed, but they will find bolder and more resilient material here – and a dark mood that is far more disturbing and troubling than that found on most mainstream pop records. The songs all bear testament to the value of brevity in pop music. In this concise form, they never outstay their welcome, yet their restless energy and imaginative verve reveal the group’s considerable ambition.

Sun Kil Moon – April (Calde Verde, 2008)

If Gnarls Barkley attempt to cram as many ideas as possible into one concise album on ‘The Odd Couple’, Mark Kozelek remains a rock of unchanging constancy. ‘April’ contains just 11 tracks, but is over 74 minutes long. It sustains a consistently languid and melancholy mood, perhaps even a dour one, and is dominated by a lingering sadness that is both haunting and beautiful. It would be easy to criticise Kozelek for his spare voice with its limited range, but within those understated limitations, there is a world of complex emotion and feeling.

‘April’ isn’t as ragged and untamed as the outstanding first Sun Kil Moon album ‘Ghosts of the Great Highway’. Instead, its focus on acoustic guitar pluckings and stubborn repetition echoes Kozelek’s earlier work with Red House Painters. If he’s made some esoteric career choices (albums consisting entirely of cover versions of AC/DC and Modest Mouse songs), it’s merely because his own artistic voice is now so fully developed as to be able to lay claim to any material. However, these projects often seem like distractions from his original writing, which is always excellent, and seems particularly strong here, rich in dense imagery and enthralling language.

It’s difficult to highlight individual tracks given the album’s overall mood, but I particularly admire the Neil Young slow growl of ‘Tonight The Sky’, which also serves up one of Kozelek’s most memorable choruses. The opening ‘Lost Verses’ unravels very slowly and mysteriously indeed, before ending with an unexpected and almost spirited rock coda. By way of contrast, ‘Heron Blue’ steadfastly refuses to add any layers to its extremely minimal arrangement. In doing so, it creates a powerful and alluring mystique.

If there’s a development here it’s in the greater and very effective use of backing vocals, many of which come from the ubiquitous Will Oldham. He adds colour and texture to the brooding ‘Like A River’, which rolls with characteristic effortlessness. Indeed, the whole album sounds superbly natural – as if it has simply flowed from Kozelek without any exertion of force.

Given Kozelek’s relentless slow pace and melancholy, it’s easy to let these songs simply drift by. Such an approach does the material scant justice – given due attention, these songs are absorbing and fascinating. Just listen to the way Kozelek’s voice melts into the delicate guitar arpeggios of ‘Tonight in Bilbao’ (which drifts on elegantly for over nine minutes), or the way he completely embraces the dust of ‘Moorestown’. He’s a kindred spirit with Jason Molina, particularly in his Songs:Ohia guise, or Will Johnson from South San Gabriel and Centr-O-Matic. He remains one of rock music’s most painterly writers and performers – impressionistic, but completely free from pretension or fanfare – it’s all there in the music and its mysteries.

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