Beyond Category: Gnarls Barkley’s The Odd Couple and St. Elsewhere; and Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

Gnarls Barkley, The Odd Couple
Words by Thomas “Cee-Lo Green” Callaway
Music by Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton
Produced by Brian Burton
Downtown Music/Atlantic, 2008

Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
Words by Thomas “Cee-Lo Green” Callaway
Music by Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton
Produced by Brian Burton
Downtown Music/Atlantic, 2006

Sly and the Family Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Epic/CBS, 1971

“Who do you, who do you, who do you, who do you think you are? Ha, ha, ha, bless your soul. You really think you’re in control? I think you’re crazy.”

—Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy”

What is freedom? What is passion? What is truth? Do the virtues we value exist apart from our ideas, apart from our imaginings? Do they have a place in our lives, and in the world? Some of us have spent a lifetime guided by virtues that we have felt were always yet to be fulfilled, like lights above on a long, dark, difficult, and dangerous path, lights that promised some eventual safety, lights that gave some prediction of daylight. Are those even lights? Might they be reflections on half-rusted metal or old, still glimmering stone, reflections on metal or stone from the moon’s glow? What are the virtues you have loved, respected? What are mine? Creativity, curiosity, dignity, honesty, generosity, intelligence, joy, kindness, perception, sensitivity. Is it possible for such virtues to have much power in a world which places greater value on fame and money, on might and popularity? These days, I am not sure, but I draw encouragement from artists and thinkers who manage to maintain imagination, independence, intellect. Brian Burton and Thomas Callaway, the collaborators who have formed Gnarls Barkley, are two such artists; and their recordings, now The Odd Couple, and before that St. Elsewhere, are idiosyncratic, innovative productions. I do not argue that these recordings are pure. I do not argue that these men are geniuses without equal. However, I do think that Brian Burton and Thomas Callaway, in Gnarls Barkley, have done more with the contemporary reality they (and we) have inherited, and the artistic possibilities therein, than many; and Burton and Callaway have kept a place, a large place, for eccentricity and complex feeling in their work.

Originally, a biography was created for Gnarls Barkley, who was said to be a correspondent of rock music critic Lester Bangs, soul musician Isaac Hayes, and the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, according to the English newspaper The Guardian’s Alex Petridis, who wrote also that the Gnarls Barkley’s song “Crazy” was “an extraordinary, boundary-defying song,” in his St. Elsewhere album review (The Guardian, April 14, 2006). That creation of a character and his biography is a gesture toward both alignment and transcendence; and, regarding Gnarls Barkley’s supposed correspondents, the kind of triangulation ambitious artists and critics love. (How else to break out of the ghettoes that so often plague artists?) Brian Burton, alias Danger Mouse, and his partner Thomas Callaway, alias Cee-Lo Green, have each done work to give the music listening public some sense of what they might do. Danger Mouse as producer combined the work of the Beatles with that of Jay-Z and also produced others (recently, the Black Keys and Beck); and Cee-Lo Green was part of the rap group Goodie Mob and did solo albums. I first heard their work with the song “Crazy”; and “Crazy” was the song from St. Elsewhere that everyone heard: according to one of several of Sarah Rodman’s articles on Gnarls Barkley in The Boston Globe, her report from August 11, 2006, the song “Crazy” was featured in rotation on seven different radio formats and on eleven of Billboard magazine’s charts. Music journalist and critic Sarah Rodman quoted the lead singer of My Morning Jacket, Jim James, as saying, “The music is combining so many elements of what so many people enjoy—rock, pop, soul, experimental—that it’s really pushing people’s minds to think and listen different.” Jim James stated, “I think it also helps our souls, it gives us all something in common…” Gnarls Barkley makes music that is smart and troubled but fun.

Most of the songs on St. Elsewhere are short, which is shrewd—there is not enough time to grow bored beyond one’s initial fascination. Light, textured instrumentation is married to a soulful—big, expressive—voice, that of Thomas Callaway (Cee-Lo Green). With a brightly rampaging beat, the song “Go-Go Gadget Gospel” opens the album, and Thomas Callaway mumbles and howls through a declaration of freedom (“formless…fearless”) and an assertion about his readiness for life. Next is the now well-known song “Crazy,” with its nearly unsurpassed first line—“I remember when I lost my mind”—the song has been performed by many artists: with a spare beat and sung in a voice that is confessional, exuberant, and at least a little melancholy, the song “Crazy” is the private admission many long to make public. “I just knew too much. Does that make me crazy?…Possibly,” sings Callaway, adding, “Maybe you’re crazy. Maybe we’re crazy. Probably.”

Thomas Callaway’s voice, in which I hear traces of Sam Cooke and Al Green, is not the kind one would expect to be heard and appreciated in a culture in which so much excessive and false masculinity is celebrated; and yet it has been heard—and it resonates in the hearts of many: androgynous, clear, dramatic, soulful. Within the descriptive recitation of isolation, speculation, and resignation that is the song “St. Elsewhere,” Callaway sounds as if he has the gift of perceptible sincerity. Even amid the new-wavish (light, pulsating) beat of “Gone Daddy Gone,” Callaway conveys attention, calm, experience—personality.

There is warmth in the singer’s voice in “Smiley Faces,” a song of questions about place and purpose; and in “Smiley Faces,” with Brian Burton’s cool, busy arrangement—and a beat that seems accented with bells, like that of the super Supremes of the Diana Ross era, in which Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote the songs that made the whole world sing. Writing in his May 9, 2006 PopMatters review of St. Elsewhere, the same day as the album’s release, reviewer Zeth Lundy noted the long-distance collaboration of Burton and Calloway, finding the “result is filthily refreshing and beside itself with ingenuity, a beastly reunion of early Mothers of Invention crudity with the combustible sexuality of Diana Ross and George Clinton.” It was fascinating to have PopMatters’ Zeth Lundy articulate an image to go with the music—“the Supremes starring in Moonraker.” (In Jeff Vrabel’s St. Elsewhere review in Billboard magazine upon the collection’s release, Vrabel wrote about Burton and Callaway as Gnarls Barkley, “They’ve apparently been digging the sounds of the early ’60s, accidentally turning ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ into the jaunty ‘Smiley Faces’ and ‘Monster Mash’ into grubby ‘The Boogie Monster.’”) I would wager that one hears not only the Diana Ross of the Supremes but also the Diana Ross of the 1970s and the 1980s, the Diana of both Motown and RCA, of The Boss (1979), Diana (1980), Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1981), and Swept Away (1984), recordings of sensuous energy: in Ross’s “No One Gets the Prize,” “Once in the Morning,” “I’m in the World,” “Upside Down,” “Friend to Friend,” “Swept Away,” and “No One Makes Me Crazy Like You Do,” there is enough charm, fury, sex, solitude, confusion, and love and desire worth contemplating. (That pain and pleasure can be combined is one of the lessons of the music of Berry Gordy’s Motown, Ross’s alma mater.) Zeth Lundy went on to say, “Song upon song bears a multi-tracked choir of trembling, throaty Cee-Los, like Motown’s greatest girl group cloned umpteen times and hauled shrieking through a wormhole studded with nightmares, fantasies, and other pieces of morally ambiguous paranoia. (While I do realize that Cee-Lo is a man, he’s probably the one contemporary male soul vocalist who recognizes the importance of getting comfortable with his inner Diana Ross.)”

“The Boogie Monster,” on St. Elsewhere, is an interesting song for more than one reason. Its opening reference to Dracula and its citation of a monster in a closet, and creation of a scary atmosphere that cannot be vanquished easily, conjures the mythology of popular entertainment (“I’d kill it but it’s already dead”)—and then the reality that mythology contains, such as self-conflict and murderous impulses in the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Callaway sings “the whole time the monster was me”). That exploration of fear and pain, and the possibility of them being exorcised by love or pleasure, is the kind of thing Michael Jackson used to do. The dramas of our psyches find reflecting scenarios in such music. The song “Feng Shui” has varied tones, playful and mournful. “I’ve tried everything but suicide, but it’s crossed my mind,” the narrator admits in “Just A Thought,” with its scene-setting music: light but thick beats, grainy washes, engine-like revving, and bean baggy percussion. Many voices claim identity in “Transformer.”

“I’m complicated…I’ll be at least two people today,” admits the narrator in “Who Cares?,” in which the singer tries to make plain his complexities, saying “I can go on and on” only to be answered by a deep male voice saying, “But who cares?” The Guardian’s Alex Petridis said that deep voice was reminiscent of the Temptations. The “who cares?” is funny; and suggests the indifference of the world. Is one’s depth of concern to anyone else—if one cannot make it into a product that can be sold?

Callaway’s own voice is hidden beneath the music in “Online,” the kind of murkiness that Sly and the Family Stone used to create: a texture that mimes being surrounded, and overwhelmed. Imagination becomes wilder. Transgression: a macabre romance, the love for a dead woman, is the subject of the poetic “Necromancer.” I find it hard to believe that either Callaway or Burton has a genuine fetish for such cold flesh, but exploring the subject seems a provocative gesture, an insistence on artistic freedom. (“Even the lyrical themes of this album—madness, depression, monsters, visionaries, being yourself—seem like conscious attempts to be arty,” wrote reviewer Nitsuh Abebe in his account of St. Elsewhere for PitchforkMedia, May 8, 2006, though Nitsuh Abebe decided “as scattershot and weirdly limp as parts of this are—two guys just knocking things together, seeing what happens—well, it feels better to hear someone trying.”) Is such an exploration an example of freedom, or what makes future freedom possible; or both? Then: “I can do a dance that’ll make the sky cry blood,” sings Callaway, a declaration of both pain and pride, in “Storm Coming,” which echoes everything from film scores to the musician once, and now again, known as Prince. “When was the last time you danced?” is the question asked in “The Last Time,” with its soulful humming.

Gnarls Barkley shares an inclination to explore sensuality and pain with Sly and the Family Stone, a multicultural band of men and women that blended different forms of music to produce from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s the albums A Whole New Thing, Dance to the Music, Life, Stand!, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Fresh, and Small Talk; with the last album attributed to Sly Stone being 1983’s Ain’t But The One Way. Gnarls Barkley suggests freedom, but it seems mostly a willed freedom. Some of the best moments in the music of Sly and the Family Stone can seem accidental, found. I remember liking Sly and the Family Stone when I was very young; and, of course, then I wasn’t concerned really about whether the band’s music was important or influential: I just thought it was good. The song “Family Affair,” one of the highlights of the album There’s A Riot Goin’ On—along with the songs “Poet,” “(You Caught Me) Smilin’,” and “Runnin’ Away”—is observant, suggestive of the volatile nature of love, marriage, and family, of hope and disappointment, and it was the drama and groove of the song “Family Affair” that drew me into it. The seemingly meandering texture of the messages and music on There’s A Riot Goin’ On may be among the artistic antecedents for Gnarls Barkley. It is a brilliant album, and the music of guitarist, drummer, trumpeter and composer Sylvester Stewart, performing as Sly Stone, along with Freddie Stone, Rosie Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini, Larry Graham, and Greg Errico, who made up the band Sly and the Family Stone, has been celebrated as party music and also protest music. The music of Sly and the Family Stone suggests that private time is more significant than public ceremony or duty for some people; and that a music that goes beyond established forms in melody or rhyme can suggest more easily private moments. That private moments involve intimacy (confession and sex) and relaxation (drink and possibly drugs) is more of the atmosphere than an explicit theme of the music (one hears suggestions of intimacy and relaxation in Sly Stone’s moans and grunts and howls). I’m reminded, too, that when Zeth Lundy wrote about Gnarls Barkley’s first album in his May 9, 2006 PopMatters review, Lundy said that “St. Elsewhere speaks to those irrepressible moments of trauma-addled privacy, sympathizing with the closeted thoughts and urges that drive us to gauge our own sanity.” As a society changes, whatever of the past—in music, in behavior—that seems in accord with the new changes is what becomes more important: thus, if a society becomes more drug-addicted, druggy music seems profound. I prefer a sensuality that is rooted in perception, appreciation, and affection rather than an inebriated lack of inhibition, but there is no denying that what Sly Stone did was inventive regarding attitude, sound, and themes.

It’s very hard to make out the words in Sly and the Family Stone’s “Luv N’ Haight,” which could be the muttering of an addict, on the album There’s A Riot Goin’ On. (I have been told the song is a comment on the hippie scene.) The soft voice and groove twang of “Just Like a Baby” have an appeal, the sound of intimate conversation. “I’m a songwriter, a poet,” declares Sly in “Poet,” which has a slow, dark funk—a thick, damp sensuality and a slightly melancholy and meditative mood. “Family Affair” is a song that does not age, though artists and audiences do: “one child grows up to be somebody who loves to learn, another child grows up to be someone you just love to burn” and “mom loves both of them.”

There is good harmony singing and a creative choral arrangement in “Africa Talks to You ‘The Asphalt Jungle,’” which seems to slide into the song “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.” In “Africa Talks to You,” featuring the line, “If you are doing right, why are you crying?,” one can hear Sly Stone’s submission to experience (a Sly devotee, the musician Prince controls, doesn’t submit); and it is easy to sense a narcotic abandonment in Sly’s submission, whereas Gnarls Barkley, though Thomas Callaway can sound tormented, seems fully aware, sober (with sobriety, pain is more felt; but with sobriety there is strength that will help one survive, while the habit of inebriation sabotages strength, is crippling).

“Brave and Strong,” in which Sly moans and grunts, is a song that acknowledges the undependability of people; and the song—with its horns and quick rhythms—seems more securely in line with the rhythm-and-blues tradition than some of the songs that preceded it on There’s A Riot Goin’ On. With horns also, and Sly’s howls, is “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” in which female voices sing “you caught me smiling again.” “Time” could be a late night declaration: the kind of thing one says when one day is done and one is not sure one wants to live the same way tomorrow. Thick bass notes like heavy padded boats move through “Spaced Cowboy.” The sweetly mocking “Runnin’ Away” has a familiar sound—whose origins I had forgotten—with jazz and rock music elements and childlike singing. Murky, with a long instrumental opening and words such as “you can make it if you try” buried beneath the music, is “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” (also known as “Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself Again”). The song has been performed by Miki Howard, and others; and Sly Stone has received the public admiration of everyone from the Beastie Boys to Aretha Franklin to Janet Jackson to Public Enemy. The respect of the creative members of one’s own generation and the generations that follow is part of what maintains the reputation of artists and their work: artists have high regard for what is good, true, and useful; and that high estimation is why Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” has been performed by so many.

“Charity Case” is the first of thirteen songs on Gnarls Barkley’s The Odd Couple. “If I help somebody, maybe there’s mercy for me,” says the narrator in “Charity Case,” which does seem a continuation of the music and themes of St. Elsewhere, in its mixture of style and passion, dance and dread. More direct, less ambiguous, is the plaintive questioning of “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” (“Who’s gonna save my soul now? How will my story ever be told?” “Is it possible you are hurting worse than me?”). The song “is a despondent but remarkable exploration of the convoluted relationship between artist and audience,” wrote Alexis Petridis about “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” in The Guardian, March 28, 2008, part of Petridis’s review of The Odd Couple.

With a galloping beat and a vocal performance to match, the song “Going On” has a narrator who is prepared to find his own place in the sun; and the narrator declares “I’m going on and I’m prepared to go it alone” in “Going On,” but he is not without compassion—“I promise I will be waiting for you.” (Near the song’s end, the music becomes softer, mellow, nearly AR Kanish. “Danger Mouse goes from gospel to pop to spooky, often in the same track,” wrote Jeff Vrabel in his Billboard review of The Odd Couple, at the time of the album’s release, March 18, 2008.)

In the song of warning that is “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)” the voice doing the warning might be that of a man or a force of nature. “Run,” according to Alexis Petridis’s March 28, 2008 Odd Couple review in The Guardian, “sounds like a cross between a mid-60s Motown record and a debilitating panic attack.” Human weaknesses are very much at the core of Gnarls Barkley’s songs on The Odd Couple. “Hurt people hurt people” is the timeless observation offered in “Would Be Killer,” which to my ears is music reminiscent of the musician known as Tricky: and, it is apprehension of the worst human impulses (“I could be a would-be killer”).

Human weaknesses: cruelty, dishonesty, gossip, pettiness, rage, resentment, slander, stupidity, tribalism, and violence. It is always easy to see and condemn human weaknesses when they are not our own, and not that of someone we love. It can be hard to name those weaknesses when they are closer to home. It is difficult, and certainly impolitic, to admit that one is driven as much by pride as passion, and by the need to dominate as the desire to connect; but, the difficult facts are the ones that give our relationships their complexity as much as their conflicts. Our faults—whether anger, cowardice, impatience, passivity, or something else—are often the most dismaying to us, as discomforting as bad economic news or unexpected violence. I mean, we all have our pressures and problems—such as the ignorant, greedy heirs of newly deceased landladies, or arrogant yet impoverished artist tenants—but denying our imperfections does not make us perfect. No one is perfect—but we can, to be better, try not to indulge our imperfections. Obviously, discipline is a challenge.

With lyrics alluding to complicated consciousness—a world with many minds and differences among them, there are vocal effects and histrionic singing in “Open Book.” A portrait of an adolescent mind, desperate, querulous, proud, as well as another acknowledgement of aloneness and worry, with a refusal of easy assurance, “Whatever” may be a critique of some of Gnarls Barkley’s own young admirers, or a wake-up notice to parents with children. Certainly, in the song that follows, “Surprise,” featuring the la-la-las appropriate to a Beach Boys song and with lines such as “when the child grows up to have more than just your eyes, don’t be surprised” is that alert, that prophecy.

I thought of both the jazzy rock music of the Doors, featuring Jim Morrison, and of Broadway, when I heard “No Time Soon,” though it remains a very contemporary song while making allusions to the musics of the past. (In an August 14, 2006 article in the Boston Globe, Sarah Rodman noted that Gnarls Barkley performed a Doors song in concert. In a March 21, 2008 Boston Globe review of The Odd Couple by Rodman’s colleague Joan Anderman, that critic who described The Odd Couple as “stellar,” Anderman, wrote, “Strummed guitar and woodwinds anchor the smooth start of ‘No Time Soon,’ but before long the song sails into lurching seas that drench the pretty ballad in sickly synthesizers.”) Thomas Callaway’s voice is one that contains an echo of memory: the consequences of observation and participation, in “She Knows” and other songs.

There is security in what someone else cannot see—in ignorance—in “Blind Mary,” a theme that reflects a real world maneuver of some men, just as the envy of someone, a neighbor who does not apprehend the main character’s actual situation, in “Neighbors” has its own resonance. There is growth despite adversity in “A Little Better,” which seems reflective, honest, a good conclusion for Gnarls Barkley’s The Odd Couple. In “A Little Better,” as in “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul,” there is fearless, flowing feeling—passion—and it is articulated directly, simply, and carries the power of truth, the recognition and revelation of a fundamental fact of human character and life.

“If this all seems a bit affected and arty for a pop album, well, so does the album,” wrote the usually far-ranging music critic Nate Chinen of the ambition and heaviness of The Odd Couple in The New York Times, March 24, 2008; and Chinen, although he declared “A Little Better” the most graceful moment in the new song collection, said the album seemed “disjointed: one track doesn’t pull you to the next. (Often the songs fade or fizzle out).” Who, or what institution, decides the limitations of art and entertainment, of popular music? We judge ourselves, each other, and the world almost constantly, but the questions are always: with what fairness, knowledge, standards, flexibility, and sympathy? Why should artistic ambition be rejected because it is not expected, or not presented in a predictable way? It is terrifying to do creative, intelligent work that is not appreciated, work that is received with indifference, skepticism, or hostility. Luckily, that has not been the usual response to Gnarls Barkley. The online arm of the magazine Entertainment Weekly, EW.com, posted a review on March 19, 2008, in which writer Leah Greenblatt stated that The Odd Couple is “impeccably produced and impressively layered, an esoteric love letter to both of-the-moment studio trickery and bone-deep vintage soul.” The album has been received as a mostly successful collaboration between Brian Burton and Thomas Callaway; and, as the best careers build on each effort, The Odd Couple and St. Elsewhere deepen the pair’s value: each project is an expansion of skill, vision, and authority; and an artist’s authority increases with his or her ability to engage broad, diverse, significant human experiences. I use the words entertainment and art together and interchangeably, but they are not the same: entertainment can be any amusement, but art is an engagement or entertainment of complex beauty raised to a level of philosophy, revelation, truth. Scribbling these words in late July 2008, months after I and many in the world first heard Gnarls Barkley’s The Odd Couple, I know that for all our anticipation and enthusiasm music does not change the world, though it can change us. The world-changing that must be done is a long, ongoing collective effort, the work of generations.

Is it possible that people of different cultures, philosophies, and temperaments can come together? (A recent article—John Derbyshire’s “Talking to the Plumber: The I.Q. Gap,” available at the internet site of National Review as of July 22, 2008—discusses the difficulty of communication when there is a gap in intelligence quotient between individuals: something that could explain silence among some neighbors.) Are Brian Burton and Thomas Callaway all that much an odd couple? Some artists work for love, some for money, some for sanity, and some for the beauty and pleasure and wisdom of craft and creation. It is possible that the work of Brian Burton and Thomas Callaway may be as respected, and considered as historic, one day, as the collaborations of the Gershwins, of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah. I think Brian Burton and Thomas Callaway love creating—and want to be free to do it as their imaginations dictate.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AllAboutJazz.com, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black American Literature Forum, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today.

Views All Time
Views All Time
353
Views Today
Views Today
4