Once again, the madness begins with the whirrr of an old movie projector. And just like before, the cinematic lunacy is immediate, ping-ponging sounds of acid-dripped go-go and the moans of Al Green's ghost stretched on a torture rack. Depending on whether you bought into this big batch of bonkers the first time around, you'll either switch it off or resume the Watusi 'til the rubber-room guys cart you away.
Yep, Gnarls Barkley is back. The duo follows up 2006's multiplatinum St. Elsewhere (and ubiquitous hit Crazy) with The Odd Couple, 13 new tracks that further explore their obsession with the cellophane line between sanity and gone-baby-gone.
Like most of GB's schtick, which includes dressing up in Star Wars garb for concerts, The Odd Couple is played with a grin and a wink. It's all sleight of hand with these trip-hopping soul brothers. For instance, the new album was scheduled for April 8 — but at the last minute, they released it in digital form on March 18. Why? Maybe because it started leaking on the Web. Or maybe because that's what Gnarls Barkley does.
Even the album's title is a bit of a lark. Unlike Felix and Oscar, these two are actually perfect for each other; they're just odd compared to the rest of us. Danger Mouse, the quiet, lanky L.A. beatmaker, creates paisley soundscapes for partner Cee-Lo, the chatty, stubby Atlanta soul singer who just might be totally unhinged. Heck, compared to these soulmates, the Carpenters looked mismatched.
On the surface, GB's preferred subject matter remains intense: Cee-Lo trying to maintain mental order as his mind melts down. But Danger Mouse is a beneath-the-surface guy, and his fever-dream production relies more on whimsy than menace. They deal in dark humor here, and if you want a cinematic equivalent, look no further than the Coen Bros. It's just a matter of time before these four do lunch.
It would have been fun for Gnarls to explore a new theme, but psychology still works. For opening song Charity Case, the closest thing The Odd Couple comes to a potential hit, Danger Mouse balances Cee-Lo's plaintive desperation with a cha-cha beat and chain-gang grunts. On Would Be Killer ("I'vve got a seeecret," the singer prowls), Danger Mouse defuses his partner's urges with B-movie stalker music. Cee-Lo may be a man in a mask, but it's a cheap rubber one all the same.
If you're looking for a song with the sheer catch of Crazy, well, there isn't one. Just as there are no obvious covers a la their '06 reworking of the Violent Femmes' Gone Daddy Gone. But those radio successes were entirely incidental. Gnarls Barkley doesn't care about hits; these guys care about cool, and there's plenty to go around.
Blind Mary mixes '50s sock hop with Willy Wonka leer. Run (I'm a Natural Disaster) cooks on cop-show velocity and a sugar-jacked chorus of kids. Throughout, Danger Mouse's layering of soul and jazz and Saturday morning cartoons is sublime. One listen, and you'll crave a peek at his eclectic record collection.
As soon as Gnarls sneak-released The Odd Couple to the cyber-masses, the Internet was lit up with fans and frenzy, the first time in a long time a smart pop act has generated so much excitement. Two days after The Odd Couple's release, it was No. 1 on iTunes. So they may be odd. And they may be crazy. But there's no one else like 'em. Let the madness continue.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.