Gnarls Barkley's first album, 2006's "St. Elsewhere," was a near-flawless collection of post-modern soul: haunting, adventurous, and infectiously demented. If the disc's ubiquitous flagship song, "Crazy," feels like one of the most overplayed tracks in recent memory, that's because it was one of the greatest genre-busting singles to come along in years.
Now the duo - a collaboration between producer Danger Mouse (the brainiac behind "The Grey Album" and Gorillaz' "Demon Days") and Goodie Mob singer/rapper Cee-Lo - follows up that auspicious debut with another stellar album, "The Odd Couple," released suddenly this week, three weeks ahead of schedule, after being leaked to the Internet.
It opens with the sound of film being fed through a projector, a nod to the cinematic pleasures to come. Spooky bass, surf's-up cymbals, and fierce oohs and ahs follow. Voices in half a dozen configurations loop and thread around Cee-Lo's laconic croon, chased by feather-light bells and cloudbursts of handclaps, quivering tremolo guitar, and hot buttered organ. Like a hazy trip through a fun house, "Charity Case" is chilling and scintillating, and unlike anything else out today.
The enigmatic collision of vintage vibes and space-age feel is at the heart of Gnarls Barkley's allure, and on "The Odd Couple" the mood turns from unsettling to downright dark. "Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)," the go-go first single, might sound like the theme to an interstellar broadcast of "Hullabaloo," but this is no dance party. Strummed guitar and woodwinds anchor the smooth start of "No Time Soon," but before long the song sails into lurching seas that drench the pretty ballad in sickly synthesizers. "Going On" toggles between a brisk shimmy and a gospel symphony, navigating a split personality with the brash grace accessible to those rare artists (Danger Mouse among them) who have mastered conventions with the sole intent of subverting them.
For all his state-of-the-art studio trickery, Danger Mouse's most heartfelt reference point is obscure '60s culture. "Run" samples British television composer Keith Mansfield's Austin Powers-esque work, while steamy "Would Be Killer" incorporates elements of "Fluid" by Twink, who was a central figure in the early English psychedelic scene. In groovalicious back-to-back punches, "Whatever" - a bratty paean to disenfranchised youth built around bits of "The Hair on My Chinny Chin Chin" by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs - is followed by "Surprise," where the iconic summer sound of clapping hands and ba-ba-ba's is a sweet foil to the song's bitter text. Exotic flavors from a German film score are lashed to hip-hop beats and dusted with twittering birds on "Open Book." It's the most turbulent song on this ideologically bleak disc, which ponders the human condition with a seriousness of purpose uncharacteristic of radio-friendly pop - and turns up only uncertainty, or worse.
"When all you need is to be met halfway/ But nobody tries/ Don't be surprised," drawls Cee-Lo, whose lyrics tackle alienation with a blend of existential angst and irrepressible charisma that's completely simpatico with his partner's ominous, blissed-out collages. Sometimes the pair slips into an uncomplicated groove, and the results transcend the duo's deep, signature whimsy to lift Gnarls Barkley into the realm of classic. "Who's Gonna Save My Soul" is a searing slow burn, poignantly plain and simple as a dirge, with no funky flights of fancy - or possibility for redemption - to be heard.