On most hip-hop albums, a cover of The Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone" would sound out of place. Then again, neither super-producer Danger Mouse nor rapper-singer Cee-Lo Green—the two simpatico forces of nature behind super-duo Gnarls Barkley—ever had much use for musical orthodoxy. On Gnarls Barkley's debut, St. Elsewhere, hip-hop is big and amorphous enough to include everything from a lively revamp of a new-wave classic to Screaming Jay Hawkins-style spookiness to trippy songs about necrophilia and feng shui.
Gnarls Barkley has already scored a number-one UK hit with "Crazy," an infectious, danceable exploration of mental illness built around a killer bassline, ghostly background vocals, and disco-symphonic flourishes; it's more Joe Meek than The Neptunes. Insanity serves as a recurring lyrical theme on St. Elsewhere, albeit often with a winking, arch theatricality. "It's not just good, it's great depression," Cee-Lo marvels of a particularly epic bout of suicidal despair on "Just A Thought."
But St. Elsewhere isn't all infectious ditties about madness, death, and "sexy suicide." On "Smiley Faces," Cee-Lo's manic-depressive street-preacher rasp becomes a vehicle for spreading infectious joy over a riotous Motown jangle. St. Elsewhere deftly balances solid songcraft with free-floating weirdness for a project that's suavely international but unmistakably American. St. Elsewhere isn't entirely devoid of filler, but a brisk run time helps keep the disc from becoming overly self-indulgent. Cee-Lo isn't a cartoon character, and he doesn't take his name from a comic-book supervillain, but his adventurous, iconoclastic work here proves he's no less animated, inspired, or colorful than Danger Mouse's previous big-name supergroup collaborators in Gorillaz and Danger Doom.