Gnarls Barkley

The Odd Couple

(Downtown/Atlantic; 2008)

By Colin McGowan | 16 May 2008

In his review of St. Elsewhere (2006), CMG colleague Craig Eley likened Gnarls Barkley’s debut to an Oz-like fantasyland: a technicolor pop-up book of a record constructed from Cee-Lo’s syrupy soul and Danger Mouse’s toy chest of samples. Though its whimsy wore off a bit through repeated listens, it was a great deal of fun if only because it was so gosh darn likable. Still, Craig’s image is contagious. I might as well liken this review to that one.

Which brings me to The Odd Couple, this mirthless, hollow offering that seems to take everything that seemed a bit artificial about the first release and amplify it to a gray so impossibly drab that the band just seems a ghost of itself. The production is tinnier, and Cee-Lo’s voice lifeless, often shrouded in layers of overdubs and tried studio wizardry.

What The Odd Couple frequently emits is not the emotions its tracks are meant to capture, but manufactured manifestations of those sentiments, limp effigies dancing in formation to some vague idea of ironic depression. “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” suffocates itself, face down in its own languid filth, as a deliberate guitar line carries Cee-Lo’s detached musings (he recites the title, which serves as a refrain, of sorts, with the conviction of an airplane pilot announcing departure) along like a moving sidewalk. “Going On” hastens the pace, sporting stuttering drums and a guitar that screams “Big! Atmospheric!” and Cee-Lo’s in his gospel-y timbre, which feels a bit practiced, perhaps because it’s used so frequently here. The three song suite is capped off by the overenthusiastic “Run,” an plastic romp fueled by frantic funk and childish chants. These songs aren’t poor in the sense that they grate on the nerves (not at first, at least); sitting at the front of the album’s thirteen songs, they are not missteps so much as harbingers of doom.

Which brings me to the inherent flaw of this, Gnarls Barkley’s sophomore effort: when your debut relied heavily on charm and capriciousness, it’s a poor strategy to set forth a collection that may as well be a slather of b-sides from the first full length but stripped of all ingratiating qualities and dangling in some uninteresting purgatory. It’s hard to render concrete criticisms that differentiate The Odd Couple from its superior predecessor (just: the writing is a bit weaker, the arrangements sleepier, the production effects a bit thicker) and so its most glaring flaw is that it simply lacks St. Elsewhere‘s invigorated tone, following the same blueprint with cheaper components, producing off-putting retreads whose only appeal lies in their similarity to more effective tracks on Gnarls’s former effort.

This isn’t any fun, really. And I was under the impression this collaboration was about exuberance and winks and nods, about music harkening back to the pop structures of old, turning them on their ear rather than replicating them. So when the Beach Boys aping on “Whatever” reveals itself to be…that, it’s a downer because songs like “The Boogie Monster” exist, songs that have a sense of humor, a sense of self-awareness and humility that humanizes the music and lets the listener in on the joke. If The Odd Couple is a joke, its set up is one of your grandfather’s overlong war stories, delivered in an unwavering monotone, and its punchline is that you just spent 40 minutes listening to the wrong Gnarls Barkley album.

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