Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple

Gnarls fuckin' Barkley. Back again for more. The truly unusual pairing of hip-hop/soul crooner Cee-Lo Green and funky DJ Danger Mouse has returned with a follow-up to their hugely successful first album St. Elsewhere. If you don't know who these two characters are by now, you may live under a rock (sorry, Mom). The single off the first album "Crazy" was the hit single of 2006 and spawned cover, after cover, after cover. Usually, collaborations of this magnitude and success are rarely repeated. This was obviously not the case for Gnarls Barkley. You'd think that going back into the studio again they'd put out something even more gnarley and crazy (sorry, that was awful). You'd think they'd want to test the limits of where their influences could take them. You'd think that the second album would be just as good or better than the first. If you thought these things would be true, well, you'd be wrong.

The Odd Couple should have been titled St. Elsewhere 1.5. It shows very little progression, and sounds mostly the same as the first album without the super smash hit. These facts are indisputable when you listen to the albums close together. One flows into the other. Back and forth. This is not to say the album is no good. The album is actually quite solid. It's better than much of the other drivel that is pressed onto a CD. With that said, when I was done listening to The Odd Couple I thought to myself they're good enough to just go through the motions and get away with it. Most people will be sufficiently happy with listening to this new album. There are catchy shows, some great beats and repeatable melodies. But don't you think they could have push a little more? They're massively creative artists content to just kinda cruise along. That is a waste; even if their bank accounts have exploded. I'm not sure you can blame one or the other for concocting a record that is almost the same as it's predecessor. But you have to wonder whether or not they'll go back to the well in another couple years for the completion of the trilogy with the working title of Strange Bedfellows.

Gnarls Barkley - Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)

Jack Johnson - Sleep Through the Static

Jack Johnson approached his fourth studio album in seven years differently than in years and albums past. He was carrying a melancholy heart after personal travails and the loss of a close cousin (Danny Riley); to whom the album Sleep Through the Static is dedicated. The album had also been talked about for it's change in tone and mood musically speaking. The title is meant to give a warning that long gone are the days off pleasantly strummed acoustic folky-bluesy-pop songs and in their place are rough around the edges electric guitar solos and crunchier melodies. That is at least what was advertised. Unfortunately, those dreams of a different side to Jack Johnson are still hidden in his buddy Ben Harper's closet.

Sleep Through the Static wants you to believe Jack Johnson is all of a sudden going to let loose with nasty guitar chops, or at least some electric solo lines. If you guessed this would actually happen you'd be terribly wrong. It's the same laid back Jack Johnson, strummin' on his acoustic, sweet melodies and everything in a nice slow shuffle. The only difference to be had is if you read the lyrics off a piece of paper or listened very, very closely. The actual music is very much in keeping with everything that has come previously from Jack Johnson. This isn't surprising but it is slightly disappointing. The only "static" comes from him strumming the electric guitar instead of his trusty acoustic (n.b. it took multiple Google searches to even find a picture of him holding an electric guitar. It's a press photo from the shoot for the record cover. Could he look more uncomfortable holding it?). That's about it. While I liked him when I first heard his music back in 2001 and thought it was progressing, he now seems to be stagnant. He's happy writing his Hawaiian influenced pop tunes and not really venturing beyond that. As an artist, it's hard to keep challenging yourself when something has become your brand or your bread & butter. It's not that this album is bad or awful it's just mediocre and somewhat forgettable. The tunes are nice background music for hanging out at a pool in the summer, but other than that these tunes aren't going to reach that far. His early work was refreshing and somewhat new, now his music is predictable and semi-forgettable.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

The backstory to Bon Iver's (Justin Vernon) debut album For Emma, Forever Ago is nearly as good as the album itself. Vernon began recording under the pseudonym Bon Iver after the breakup of DeYarmond Edison which was a group similar to Iron & Wine and Little Wings and sort of like Bonny "Prince" Billy. Vernon moved back to Wisconsin and took residence out at his father's hunting cabin deep in the woods. In the dead of winter. For 3 months. Alone. He wrote and recorded music in 12 hour spurts. What he produced was a nine song debut album by spring time. For the French majors 'Bon Iver' is an intentional misspelling of the French for 'good winter'. He polished the album off in a studio in North Carolina to add some horns and drums, but mostly left it very stripped down.

For Emma, Forever Ago is truly a stunning debut. (So stunning, that even The Fork gave it an 8.1.) It is an album that begs to be listened to curled up in front of a fireplace on a snowy night with some hot chocolate. While that's not how I first listened to it, I wish it had been. The album is very intimate and subtly powerful. Bon Iver draws you in with pristine falsetto tones that are disarming and songs that well constructed and very moving. The first thing you have to notice is Bon Iver's voice. There is no question it's what anyone would talk to you about first. His soaring falsetto is breathtaking and when he drops down the register and adds a mass of harmony vocals it is something special. Built around his voice are lightly strummed guitars, the occasional electric guitar, horns, light drums, and slide guitar. All of which never impede on his voice as the heart and soul of the music. They offer exactly what they should: accompaniment. His voice ebbs and flows. He knows how to build a song toward a climax and delivers each and every time. It is a debut whose songs are sure to be heard in emotion spaces in TV/Film for years to come. For Emma, Forever Ago captures the feeling of quiet isolation where the only sounds are snow falling gently on trees, the occasional crackle of firewood, and your own beating heart.

Bon Iver - Flume