Chances are you’ve seen the Gnarls Barkley posters round town by now, scratched your head at the typo or sniffed your armpit to make sure you’re civilized. Gnarls — a gospel-tinged hip-pop collabo between Goodie Mob’s worst rapper/best falsetto soul crooner, Cee-Lo, and the producer Danger Mouse, who famously mashed up Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ “White Album” to give us the stillborn baby that was 2004’s Gray Album — also did some “wacky” publicity shots. In one they’re dressed like characters from A Clockwork Orange; in another they’re dressed like Wayne’s World’s Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar. I’ve heard there’s one where they’re dressed like Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers, and they’re about to make out, and Monterey Jack’s there too.
FUN FUN FUN: Where things do get serious, though, people seriously love Gnarls Barkley.
So Gnarls don’t seem to take themselves that seriously. They say as much in interviews when pressed about the goofy name (it’s just a name), or the recording process (laid-back scattered stints over two years), or the curious way their new-gospel single “Crazy” (LISTEN: Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy") just happened to appear late last year on the Internet, no official release on vinyl, not so much as a peep of top-down publicity for it, the song just leaking. The born-of-Web, MP3-only bit Gnarls initially adopted made the project seem even more “pure fun” and “for the love of the music, man” — free downloads mean, to an extent, money doesn’t matter, just the tunes do, and the people. Their new St. Elsewhere, released on Atlantic-distributed Downtown Records, has songs about Inspector Gadget, Transformers, necrophilia, and various kinds of monsters — all unlikely pop fare that further plays up the project’s whimsy.
Where things do get serious though, people seriously love Gnarls Barkley. The Gorillaz-like crossover appeal of “Crazy,” backed by an insane number of digital downloads, shot them to the top of Britain’s Top of the Pops — a first for digital downloads. They performed live on the show, and converts kept them in the #1 spot for seven straight weeks, maybe even eight at this point. In the US, the album placed at #20 on the Billboard 200 album chart its first week, and taking cues from Franz Ferdinand, Gnarls did one of those secret “MySpace friends only” gigs during the Coachella Festival in April. The implications are brilliant: Gnarls Barkley aren’t huge pop stars, they’re your friends, and your friends are playing a show tonight. Fun fun fun.
I’m not on MySpace — Facebook all the way — so I don’t mind telling your friends that their band have two really great songs — the futurized Motown bounce “Smiley Faces” and “St. Elsewhere,” a glitched-out D’Angelo Voodoo R&B title track — and that the rest sound like Prince filler or hipster Black Eyed Peas. I don’t mind telling them that the lyrics to “Necromancer,” Gnarls’s song about having sex with dead people, comes out stock shock schlock when it could have been some Sixth Sense “I fuck dead people” send-up. I like how your friends mine kiddie nostalgia for cosmic significance, but I don’t like Cee-Lo’s destroy-the-cliché-via-cliché shtick in spots, à la “I find it deep how you can be so shallow,” or the line about needing “some real good head,” the album’s almighty groaner. In other words, I like the Gnarls Barkley album fine, but I’m infatuated with the Gnarls Barkley commercial art project, its uncool-is-cool angle, its good-natured, seemingly democratic rise in popularity, its tossed-off masquerade.
Which is why I showed up at New York’s Webster Hall May 22 for Gnarls’s first live gig on the East Coast — I knew there’d be high jinks. The question was what and who and how the rap blog community would react to it. The bit was simple: Gnarls Barkley cancelled last minute, so Brush Fire, a Gnarls Barkley cover band, were filling in for them. Thirteen people came out to do the work of two — ’80s hair-band flash and big wigs, three back-up singers, four strings, some dudes on guitar and keyboards, a drummer, another guy with a cape, and then an enormous black man also wearing a cape. The two caped crusaders came out to Europe’s “Final Countdown,” high jinks made audio, which riled the mostly late-20s crowd into throwing up the guns and saying (sort of loudly), “Holy shit, I didn’t know Gnarls Barkley wrote that song for Arrested Development. . . ”
The goof felt tossed off, very superficial, until the band actually started playing and something clicked for me. Webster’s mix was off — keyboards pushed all the way up, strings and singers back, the drums miked such that you could only hear the drummer’s bass and snare and no cymbals. But the mix was off because Brush Fire were a cover band — right? It’s as if the goof pre-emptively explained away the bad mix, the no-momentum show, Cee-lo saying he wants to see “titties . . . and crowdsurfing,” the general non-experience that was the Gnarls Barkley live show. The goof almost demands imperfections.