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I was never a gigantic Gnarls Barkley fan although certain tracks from The Odd Couple are on a pretty steady rotation in my car and on my Mp3 player. The one thing that I've always loved about Gnarls Barkley and Cee Lo's songwriting in general was the combination of Mo-Town and soul with updated hip-hop and dance production. A healthy dollop of contemporary indie-rock also gives the artist a distinctive flavor. Basically Gnarls Barkley represented to me the band that I had always wanted TV on the Radio to be. The music is upbeat, has catchy refrains, and interesting lyrical content as well as providing compositional interest.
The Lady Killer is a album of variety. Cee Lo provides myriad sounds, textures and moods from the beginning to the end including toe-tappers, radio-ready anthems, and even an awkward make-out tune.
Cee Lo bookends the album with what he labels "The Lady Killer Theme". Although the idea is nice, and gives the listener a shaky idea of a concept album, the intro is awkward with Green introducing himself (his name is "not important" though) over a lounge piano which roughly follows the cadence of his voice a-la Henry Hey. This faux-hotel lounge act devolves into a secret-agent style theme that is recapped in the outro accompanied this time by a wailing guitar solo. I love concept albums, but this is not a concept album and the awkward "Lady Killer Theme" seems to be taking on too much responsibility. It reminds me very much of the skits on Outkast's The Love Below but without the effectiveness. Luckily, the rest of the album more than makes up for the awkwardness of the intro.
"Bright Lights Bigger City" is a far stronger introduction than "Lady Killer Theme". The track's introductory fist-pumping synth chords set the stage for a groovy ultra-cool orchestra-laden theme that does far more to cement Green's status as a "Lady Killer". The contrast between this tune and Green's unlikely pop-hit "Fuck You", next on the album, is vivid in terms of sound, style, and substance. This is the song that hooked me onto Cee Lo Green's solo post-Gnarls music. The song, about jealous love and with themes as old as American rock and roll is written like a Motown classic but uses hip-hop sensibilities and language to create one of the most catchy and durable songs of the modern era. Because of the language, it may never reach totally mainstream status, but expect to hear samples of this song in film and other music for a long time. Just listen to it:
The next track, "Wildflower" is easily one of my favorite songs on the album, with a soaring refrain and Green's signature nasal harmonies providing a memorable bridge. Unfortunately the refrain is repeated too often and may result in over-saturation. Also, fade-out? Please stop doing fade-outs.
"Bodies" is the least effective song on the album. It starts out well enough, with cool James Bond make-out music looping behind Green's sexually charged lyrics ("They say that chivalry is dead, then why is her body in my bed?"). The lyrics consist of Green's "Lady Killing" analogies until halfway through the track when it breaks down into the sounds of Green....well having sex. I'm usually not one to blush at explicit material, but hearing Green panting and whispering "You taste so good girl" directly into my ear is nothing I want to be exposed to, or share with other people. If this song is supposed to be a make-out tune, the latter half fails by creating a situation so awkward that any sexy-times would probably be interrupted to hit "song forward".
"Love Gun" is another sexually themed song with clever use of gunshot samples (not as clever as MIA's "Paper Planes" though). The track features guest singer Lauren Bennett who provides a nice foil to Green's voice. Like previous tracks, the song would make a great Bond intro song, and carries the concept of the "Lady Killer" nicely. Providing yet more contrast with the sexually dark "Love Gun" is "Satisfied", a bright pop song that could have Motown enthusiasts flipping through their collections looking for the original. These Motown reenactments are where Green is at his most successful and this song, while not being the heavy hitter that "Fuck You" and "It's Ok" are, is a great tune.
"I Want You" is another successful homage to Motown classics. The amount of soul in this track is tangible. While the lyrics are not incredibly deep, they are sweet, with the second verse dedicated to a numeration of the innocent, if generic qualities that the singer finds likable in the female subject. The song results on platitudes both musically and lyrically, but in such a way that you really don't give a shit. The only weak point in this song comes around the 3' mark when, for the first time that I've really noticed strongly, Green's voice reaches its limit and he sounds strained and painful in his upper register.
"Cry Baby" is largely forgettable, like the B-side of a Temptations album. It has all of the elements of a popular song, but is believe it or not, too dated sounded to be truly effective. "Fool for You" is a funky soulful track that I would love to hear James Brown perform the verses of, with a high staccato delivery contrasting with lower supple refrains. This song truly shows off Green's versatility but seems more fit for live performance with a strong dose of improvisation than it does on the CD. It is easily the funkiest and sexiest track on the album though, and makes a much stronger case for a make-out song than "Bodies".
"It's Ok", the second single from Lady Killer is powerful in the same way that "Fuck You" is, it combines dance sensibilities with classic Motown conventions including back-up singers and a piano-driven pre-chorus that could easily be lifted from a Top-10 1960's hit. Listen for yourself below:
"Old Fashioned" is as old fashioned as the name implies, and is the stand-out pick for Slow Dance Song of the Year...is the year was 1965. I don't care if it sounds old though, it's an awesome song. The production is also outstanding, with old-timey compression and reverb on the the microphone to truly make the song sound like it was placed in the high-school gymnasium during the spring formal.
"No One's Gonna Love You" is a musically mean piece of work that brings back one of my favorite aspects of Gnarls Barkley, the hip-hop combination of chords that otherwise would never work in the verses followed by epic refrains. Green flexes his vocal muscles in this song with large leaps and silky high-range held notes. The track's title does not give the whole story, as Green finishes his album with a final appeal that he is, in fact, the greatest lover that one can have by singing "No one's gonna love you more than I do." The downside to the track: the songs ends extremely abruptly and without closure, only to be capped off with the outro "Lady Killer Theme".
This album is not the greatest collection of songs I've ever heard, but it's worth purchasing (especially for only $5 on Amazon.com, come on). Cee Lo Green is at his strongest when he's updating Motown conventions with modern popular and hip-hop sounds. He is at his weakest when trying to be overly smooth and sexy. "Bodies" really is a terrifying track, simply because of the 1'30" of Green's moaning and heavy breathing, and the intro and outro are also awkward and tacked-on. Green is a pop-music machine. He adheres to standard song structures almost to a fault, but the tracks are varied enough and have so much interest that they can hold up to repeat listening (see for example the bridge of "Fuck You" where Green wail-sings the lyrics).
If you're a Motown or Soul fan (and seriously, who doesn't love Motown) pick up the album. Just take a risk and buy it. It's absolutely worth it. The album may not hold up to obsessive repeat listening, and from experience tiring of Gnarls Barkley albums you will probably not be listening to the majority of this album two years from now. Despite that, you owe it to your ears and brains to invest in some new music that is creatively put together yet doesn't require too much critical thinking.