Gnarls Barkley

The Danger Mouse File

With the recent release of the new Broken Bells album After the Disco, this is as good a time as any for people to become even more familiar with the different projects of Danger Mouse.  If you’ve listened to music in the last ten years, you’ve come across several songs produced by Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, and more likely than not own at least an album filled with his contributions.

If there is one thing that I can pinpoint as a signature of the Danger Mouse Sound, it’s the idea of the old made new again, or perhaps the retro in a modern context.  This is not done in a showy or bombastic way–at no point in a Danger Mouse song is he calling to the listener’s attention THIS IS AN OLD STYLE/CONCEPT.  There is nothing post-modern about his use of old styles, and certainly no ironic commentary.  He’s not just throwing old records into a blender and spitting out reprocessed old music; you won’t find a dubstep version of a Hollies song, for example.  Though he first got most people’s attention with his Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up The Grey Album, he’s moved well beyond throwing modern beats behind old soul samples. It’s much more subtle, which is why it’s worked so well over multiple iterations. 

There are certain reoccurring elements that can be found in the Danger Mouse sound.  The one that I usually pick up on is a certain bass sound–quick, staccato single notes, and often muted to dampen the sound a bit.  There are also certain idiosyncrasies to his drumming/percussion, namely in his snare sound and his use of the ride cymbal, often matched with a late 50’s/early 60’s rock beat.  And you are also likely to hear certain organ flourishes that give an additional color; it’s usually not a dominant sound, but present enough in the background that it is a significant part of the atmosphere of the song.

Danger Mouse hasn’t just been consistently excellent in the past decade, he’s been quite prolific.  That means there are probably a few albums of his that you haven’t gotten around to listening to, or may not even have known existed.  I mean, I was looking at this list and saw a few albums that I owned that I had no idea he had helped produce.  It could just be confirmation bias speaking, but as I’ve listened to them in writing this article, I keep going, yeah, that definitely has that Danger Mouse sound.

One of those albums is The Good, The Bad & The Queen, which has unfortunately been forgotten about a bit over the years.  It’s the rare super-group album that’s worth listening to (and it definitely is a super-group: Damon Albarn of Blur, Simon Tong of The Verve, legendary drummer Tony Allen, and holy shit Paul Simonon of The Clash).  While each of the component parts are brilliant, they unite to create a singular album that is different than anything else they’ve ever done.

Another overlooked album is the debut of Electric Guest, Mondo.  I’ve heard the single “This Head I Hold” a bit on the local alternative radio station, but it never made much headway nationally.  It very much has the kind of groove found in Danger Mouse’s work with Gnarls Barkley, namely from the bass and from the classic pop-rock drums, just with a different singer.

Speaking of Gnarls Barkley, even though everyone knows their breakout hit “Crazy” and a lot of people picked up their debut album, their follow-up The Odd Couple never caught on like it should.  There was no single track that stood out from the pack like “Crazy” did, but the album was stacked from top-to-bottom with fantastic songs.  “Run”“Going On”, and “Surprise”  were all incredibly fun tracks filled with energy that should pack the dancefloor.  “Blind Mary”  was a bouncy track that managed the difficult task of being positive yet melancholic.  And then there’s the devastatingly heart-breaking ballad, “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?”, with it’s absolutely perfect video.

2008 was an absolutely banner year for Danger Mouse, creatively speaking.  He had three of my top ten albums of that year, an honor that means absolutely nothing to most everyone.  In addition to The Odd Couple, there was his work on Beck’s Modern Guilt and The Black Keys’s Attack & Release, albums which I will argue are among the high points of each artist’s careers.  Beck is of course famous for shifting genres with each album, and he slides in smoothly into the Danger Mouse style.  Beck always had a great touch in finding bits and pieces of old styles and repurposing them in modern contexts, so it should have been no surprise that he and Danger Mouse were simpatico.

The Black Keys were a different story.  They had an easily identifiable trademark sound of ragged two-man blues/rock, and it was unclear how another element could fit in without disrupting that aesthetic.  So often the production touches were at the margins or added for just little bits of color–a perfectly timed organ hit here, a little jazz flute there, etc.  It was enough to push the group into new creative directions and eventually into greater commercial success.  While some may grow tired of how The Black Keys have come to dominate rock radio today, I will always appreciate it when great songs like “Little Black Submarines” come on, even if they ruin some of its beauty by knocking out a whole verse and not allowing the song to properly develop (a rant that I will save for a later day).

It’s a lot better than being constantly subjected to Nickelback.

But perhaps the most interesting entry in the Danger Mouse discography is the project he did with composer Daniele Luppi, entitled Rome.  It’s basically a soundtrack to a fake spaghetti western, and it’s really quite a blast.  The album does a great job of mixing in instrumentals with more traditional “songs”, featuring Jack White and Norah Jones on vocals.  In the end it fulfills the goal of any project like this: it makes you want to see the movie that would have this soundtrack.

If this has done anything, I hope it makes you at least somewhat excited when news of another Danger Mouse release comes out.  And checking the calendar, you should be feeling that in approximately…three months.  Enjoy.

Covered: “Reckoner”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

One of the highlights of Radiohead’s classic album In Rainbows was the song “Reckoner”.  It may seem like a contradiction when I put it this way, but if I had to describe it, I’d say it was a beautiful, haunted, jazzy piece.  The first instrument the listener hears is the super-clean guitars with their rich, bassy tone, a style used throughout In Rainbows but used to maximum effect here (I’ve quipped to friends before that it seemed that Radiohead forgot that there were other pickups on their guitars besides the neck pickup, but it works perfectly in this context).  The stuttering rhythm of the beginning arpeggios are complemented by a shuffling drumbeat, which gives the song a right mix of propulsion as well as unease.  The use of the ride cymbal also adds to the haunting quality, giving an instrumental haze through which Thom Yorke’s ethereal vocals filter in and out as he pleads in a gorgeous falsetto.

So it would seem like it would be difficult to match the greatness of this song, right?

I would say that while the original is a great song, I believe that the Gnarls Barkley cover surpasses it.  The instrumentation is faithful to the original, right down to the tambourine part as played by Danger Mouse.  One small difference is that instead of strings, the band opts for some distortion on the guitar, a substitution which works great in the live setting.  But what sets this version apart from the original is the amazingly emotional vocal performance by Cee Lo.  He gives this song all the passion that it didn’t even know it needed, turning Thom Yorke’s pleadings into a forceful demand.  It’s a stunning, powerful performance, and is the key to what makes it one of the best covers I’ve ever heard.

***Side Note: I was actually at the concert in 2001 at The Gorge where Radiohead debuted an early version of “Reckoner”.  It sounded pretty much nothing at all like the song we all know now.