Future-Funk Overlords

Gnarls Barkley test the One Ring theory

Gnarls Barkley's debut single "Crazy" hit the Internet in late 2005 and was officially released in the U.K. last spring, reigning at No. 1 for nine weeks. The song — a honeyed, high-strung vamp on mental illness luxuriated in spaghetti-western strings — quickly gained a crossover market share (and a host of cover versions) last seen when OutKast released "Hey Ya!" in September 2003. Almost immediately the accompanying hype made "Crazy" like the musical equivalent of J.R.R. Tolkien's One Ring: One Song to rule them all, One Song to find them, One Song to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. Like that One Ring, "Crazy" became an epic symbol of fallibility and triumph, plus one hell of a summer jam. Yet the question lingered: Could Gnarls Barkley shoulder the burden of having produced the One Song?

A collaboration between Georgia-bred producer/musicians Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton, a Gorillaz confederate and creator of the archetypal mash-up The Grey Album) and Cee-Lo Green (of Goodie Mob/Dungeon Family fame), Gnarls Barkley was intended to provide both artists with a therapeutic role-playing exercise — an opportunity to fly the freak flag displayed on their May debut album St. Elsewhere. Like the One Ring's effect of rendering the wearer invisible, DM and 'Lo sublimated their identities to fuel a haunted mythology of empowerment through confronting insecurities — as well as delivering uncharacteristically "menacing" thoughts on suicide, stalking, and necrophilia, and even a cover of the Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone," to a grimy bounce.

"My heroes had the heart to lose their lives out on a limb/ And all I remember is thinking I want to be like them," Cee-Lo announces two minutes into "Crazy." And surveying the press materials — where orchestral live performances have been almost as ubiquitously embraced as "Crazy" — it appears Gnarls Barkley has translated this desire into reality, assuming the group's idols include various duos such as Wayne and Garth, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, and Napoleon Dynamite and Pedro Sanchez.

The duo dressed as these, as well as many other characters, in a press campaign that attempted to shift scrutiny from their separate achievements. Of course it would have been cheeky and prescient of DM and 'Lo to dress as Big Boi and Andre 3000, considering the reception of Gnarls Barkley as the new freak-funk avatars. The Gnarls Barkley aesthetic certainly embraces the overdriven apocalypse of the '60s/'70s funk-soul scene, in the way the songs present struggle and forging a new identity as vital.

As part of Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo was integral in Southern hip hop's challenge to create a slowed-down, socially minded MC identity, always looking at himself as rhyme-, not rap-, oriented. Cee-Lo embraces a psychedelic flow and curve across the divergent soul-hop on St. Elsewhere, and with an almost gospel giddiness, attempts to bridge ebullient eras. Danger Mouse produces beats for Cee-Lo's individual interpretations. Together they have provided each other with a womb where flailing and introspective sounds can reflect, repent, and reside in safety.

The rest of St. Elsewhere doesn't so much stand up to "Crazy" as stand near it. Within the witches' brew Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo indulge their inner golems — paranoid delusions and musical sketches — under the cover of alternate identities. Yet perhaps Gnarls Barkley's greatest misstep is not having shot publicity stills dressed as Frodo and Sam, as it's nigh inconceivable that St. Elsewhere would be anything more than a collection of dysfunctional sketches without a mutual commitment to fantasy and perseverance. If nothing else, Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" will be remembered as the One Ringtone that for a time bound them.

 
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