Portrait of Gnarles Barkey as Tron by Grant Siedlecki
I haven’t had a lot to say about Gnarls Barkley in this space mostly because I haven’t yet been able to decide how I feel about the whole endeavor: a once-great Southern-rap pioneer with freaky space-mystic pretensions pairing up with a goofy cartoon-funk producer and making an album of tossed-off song sketches and then marketing it to whatever’s left of the Alternative Nation by dressing up like Napoleon Dynamite in press photos and generally willingly making fools of themselves whenever possible. I read the Noz hate before I heard the album, and that made it a whole lot harder to hear the album, especially since there’s not all that much to hear there. It’s a half-assed piece of work by design. They rushed it out, and that’s supposed to be part of the charm. But so what they’ve got is one honest-to-God excellent pop-soul song in “Crazy” and a whole bunch of nice-enough filler. In a very real sense, it doesn’t matter what I think of the project. They’re platinum now; St. Elsewhere has sold more than Soul Food or Still Standing. Every indie-rock band in the universe is lining up to cover “Crazy.” The album never seems to drop out of the top five while rappers with huge hype can’t ever seem to stay in for more than a week. Cee-Lo will never usurp Andre 3000 as the public face of the Dungeon Family, but there’s a pretty good chance that St. Elsewhere will end up outselling Idlewild. When the NBA season returns, Charles Barkley is going to get really sick of Kenny Smith calling him “Gnarls” (I can’t wait). Nick Sylvester said it first: “They’ve found themselves or been forced into one of the more fascinating instances of the publicists and publicity engines becoming more “artistic” than the albums and artists themselves.” In an age when even some of the world’s most popular rappers are struggling to stay relevant, Cee-Lo or his handlers managed to figure out a really sneaky way out, using his built-in credibility to snare interest and then keeping it by acting as goofy as possible.
All that was driven home by their show last night. They’ve gotten big enough that they can sell out the Central Park Summerstage, a pretty huge venue. A few thousand people are willing to pay $35 to see a group that’s only released 37 minutes of music. It was more frat-heavy than any crowd I’ve been in since maybe AmsterJam, and these people were singing along with album tracks, loud. People love them. They win. As for the show, it was good. They’ve got a 13-piece band: backup singers, strings, the whole thing. They flesh out the record enough that even some of the least developed tracks sound OK. Cee-Lo has a veteran’s charisma, and he seems delighted at the chance to play the sex-preacher persona he’s been nurturing for a few years, something he tried in the rap world, something that the rap world wouldn’t let him get away with. He asked us if we could dig it a whole lot of times, and most of us agreed that we could dig it. The band came out dressed in plaid-heavy school uniforms, fulfilling their running gimmick of dressing like movie characters at every show (I thought they were supposed to be Rushmore, but no, fucking School of Rock). There’s an element of buffoonery at work there, but then there’s usually an element of buffoonery at work whenever a group of musicians gets popular enough to perform on large stages in front of huge groups of people; otherwise, Mariah Carey wouldn’t feel like she needs to dress like a Bond girl and Kiss would’ve never worn makeup. They worked hard at putting on a fun show, and they succeeded. But there was something awfully strange going on when Cee-Lo talked about how the group is trying to inspire people to explore music and then played a fucking Greenhornes cover. The group did three covers: Greenhornes, Violent Femmes, and (seriously) Doors. (Cee-Lo: “I think Jim Morrison had an affair with my mom.” Ew.) No rap; the closest they came was the spoken-word track “Necromancer.” Cee-Lo said something about trying to do whatever they could to do a full set since they only had one album, but he never once made mention of his two solo albums or his three albums with Goodie Mob. I could be reading too much into this, but it was almost like he didn’t want to scare off the white audience he’d worked so hard to find. It’s not the end of the world or anything, but he’s a good singer and a great rapper, and it’ll be a while before we hear him rap again. It’s good to see someone rising to the top of the world after being partially responsible for two of the greatest Southern rap albums of all time; he’s earned his spot, but there’s something unsettling about how he got there.
Voice review: Debbie Maron on Gnarls Barkley at Webster Hall
But the brilliant marketing continues. Someone had the genius idea of booking Mike Patton’s garbage funk-metal project Peeping Tom to open the show; after that mess, the Gnarls songs sounded like symphonies to God. Before last night, the last time I’d seen Patton onstage was at my first-ever concert: Guns N Roses, Metallica, and Faith No More at RFK Stadium in DC, July 1992 (yes, you’re jealous). I was way up in the back of the upper deck, but I’ll never forget the image of Faith No More ending their set with “Epic,” thousands of fists pumping along. Things have changed a lot for Patton since then; he’s abandoned FNM’s world-obliterating kitchen-sink theatrics and moved into a supremely ridiculous form of cult-based experimentalism: he growls and coughs and does shitty beatboxing, his faithful crowd buys the records, and no one else cares. He’s had isolated moments of tolerability (Fantomas’s The Director’s Cut was pretty good), but virtually everything he’s done in the past decade has been self-indulgent bullshit. Peeping Tom is supposed to be his return to accessibility, but it’s really just turgid, screechy Tool-metal with DJ scratches. Patton dances like G. Love, and the grooves keep interrupting themselves before they have a chance to build to anything. Rahzel is in the band, and he gets to rap sometimes, but he’s generally pretty inaudible except when he and Patton are doing dueling beatboxes. The whole thing left the crowd looking confused and unimpressed, which led to outburst after outburst from Patton: “What is this, the fucking latte crowd? Are we in Starbucks? We’re in New York!” Doesn’t Patton live in New York? If he does, he probably knows that it’s entirely possible to be in a Starbucks and in New York at the same time. He didn’t have to do any of that stuff when he opened for GNR, anyway. At one point, the rest of the band left the stage so Rahzel could do his stale “Touch It” routine. When they came back, Patton asked, “If you had a fucking Bentley, wouldn’t you want to show it off?” Rahzel is Mike Patton’s Bentley.