Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere

So I have some time on my hands at the moment, so this review is coming a day early...with the possibility of another review, tomorrow. You think you can handle it? Yeah...I thought so.
So, apparently, Charles Barkley has quite a singing voice. I did not know this about him.
(Har har har)
I was excited about this album for months and months before it was actually released, before the lead single "Crazy" broke all sorts of records in Britain. Why was I excited? It was partly due to the pictures that were popping up on the internet (one with the duo dressed like characters from The Big Lebowski, another of them dressed like Napoleon Dynamite and Pedro, etc.), but it was mostly for the parties involved. Production from Danger Mouse (the underground hero who famously mashed together Jay-Z's Black Album and The Beatles' White Album, then was nominated for a Grammy for producing the Gorillaz brilliant second album, Demon Days, then working with MF Doom on the hugely overlooked Danger Doom project, The Mouse and The Mask...basically one of the best producers on the market) and vocals from Cee-Lo Green (neo-soul revivalist who was a member of the infamous Goodie Mobb, worked with Outkast, and launched a solo career comprised of 2 off-the-wall soul albums). Really, how could that go wrong?
Well...there was no chance of it going wrong. Not only did their single and their album rip through Britain like a tornado, it's doing about the same thing here (only on a slightly smaller scale). They tour with a full band (string section and all) and dress up differently for every show (Star Wars characters, military outfits, Wizard of Oz, etc.), making their live shows even more entertaining than the album itself (check out some live clips over at www.youtube.com. Type "Gnarls Barkley Live", and you'll find some cool stuff).
But is that really all they're going for? Visual stimulation?
Thankfully, that's not the case. The album itself makes a strong case for Album of the Year. It's as entertaining and creative as just about anything else currently on the market. The music is amazing: an eclectic mix of old-soul sound meets new-school samples...but still, there's a darkness to it. Some songs sound like a soundtrack to your nightmare: "Just a Thought", with its distorted drum loop, backwards cymbals and eerie Spanish guitar is definitely a frontrunner in that category, as is "Necromancer", a song about murder and sex that would be disturbing if it wasn't so stinkin' catchy.
Then there's Cee-Lo's voice, always at the forefront. He definitely has a throwback voice, like Al Green or Marvin Gaye. You can't help but think he'd have been better appreciated if he was singing in the 60s and 70s...but then, if he were, who'd be carrying the torch now? Who'd be at the forefront of this groundbreaking (yet still retro) album? I can't think of anyone at the moment who could do half of what Cee-Lo can do with it.
This album has a bit of everything: toe-tappin' schizo-gospel ("Go-Go Gadget Gospel"), old school Motown ("Smiley Faces"), short, catchy hip-hop songs about furniture arrangements ("Feng Shui"), a quasi-obscure 80s cover ("Gone Daddy Gone"), swamp-soul monster-rock ("The Boogie Monster"), and, last but not least, dancefloor funk ("The Last Time"). There's more, but I've run out of descriptive terms.
All in all, there's not a single down moment on this album, not a single track that should be skipped (unless, of course, the subject matter on a song or two disturbs you, then, by all means, skip). It's upbeat, catchy, and utterly original...a combination that doesn't normally translate into mass publicity, but these guys somehow managed to do it, anyway.
It's the perfect summer album. I can't imagine a better CD to have on while driving with the windows down on a sunny day.
I can't say enough good things about this album, so I suppose I'll end with this: buy buy buy!

Essential Tracks: "Go-Go Gadget Gospel", "Crazy", "Just a Thought"

Favorite Tracks: "Storm Coming", "The Last Time"

Final Rating: 9.2/10

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Ray LaMontagne - Till The Sun Turns Black

I've been listening to this album quite a bit as of late. I didn't care much for it the first couple of times I'd heard it. I'm a pretty big fan of his first album, Trouble (you know, with the exception of "How Come", which sounded like he was trying to write a new Buffalo Springfield song or something). The reason I liked that album so much was because there were some absolutely gorgeous songs on it. The entire album was so stripped down...it sounded like he recorded it in his bedroom (probably while crying, but who knows). Songs like "Narrow Escape" (Killed ourselves a woman, that's all), "Burn", "Hannah", and "Jolene" made me fall in love with this album. The songs were so heartbreaking, so soft...I couldn't help but love it. (Apparently I have a thing for sad songs and books. Sharon seems to think it's because I'm generally a happy person, so I need something to balance it out. That makes pretty good sense, I think.)
So imagine how happy I was when I heard he had a new one coming out. "Oh man", I said to myself, "if it's half as good as Trouble, this could be one of the best albums of the year."
Then I listened to it. Oh, how disappointed I was. An opening keyboard line? Electric guitar and bass? Guitar and flute solos in a 6 minute song? Drums everywhere you look? Am I listening to the new Ray LaMontagne or Devendra Banhart?
Alas, it was Ray LaMontagne...
A couple songs seemed promising to me. "Can I Stay?" and "Lesson Learned" reminded me of some of the songs off of Trouble. "Now, if he just do another album with songs like this, he'd be in business".
But still, I wasn't able to give up on it. "Maybe I'm missing something." So I kept listening. By the third or fourth time I forgot what I didn't like about it. Sure, it doesn't sound like Trouble...but isn't that a good thing? Do I want great artists to keep repeating their previous work instead of moving forward?
No. But wht I wanted was this: a progression from Trouble...but a slow one. Not a huge change all at once. I wanted a couple instruments at a time to be added...maybe by his 4th album he'd be ready to go all "hippie rock" (as I proclaimed as I listened to this album for the first time) on us.
The more I listen to this album, the more I love it. And the more I love it, the more I'm glad that, ultimately, artists have control of their work and not me. Because I can guarantee you that, had he released Trouble, Part 2, I would've loved it for about 2 weeks, then said to myself, "Man, I wish he would've done something different."
Long story short: this album is great (or, as the Mayor of the Altered State of Drugachussetts would say, "I declare this album to be...awesome!"). If you liked Trouble, it may take you a little bit to get into. But, if you've never listened to Trouble, or didn't care too much for it, give this album a shot. He has now added great muscianship to his already amazing songwriting. Keep up the good work, Ray...I'm sorry I ever doubted you.

Essential Tracks: "Empty", "Three More Days", "Can I Stay", "Till the Sun Turns Black"
Current Favorite Track: "Lesson Learned"

Rating: 8.3/10