A Progressive Sound With Retro Spirit

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The New York Sun

DJ Danger Mouse (ne Brian Burton) is the latest in a string of producers – Dr. Dre, Timbaland, the Neptunes, Kanye West, Mr. Collipark, and so on – to establish himself as a brand. But though he fits a pattern, he also breaks the mold. Danger Mouse is the first super producer to come out of the music underground (though a case could be made for Kanye West). And certainly the first whose heart still remains there.

Danger Mouse didn’t make his name with a string of radio hits for established artists. In fact, the only big names he’s produced – the Beatles and Jay-Z – he did illegally on his 2002 mashup project “the Grey Album.”

Instead, Danger Mouse has built his young career on collaborations with has-beens, oddballs, and minor talents: underground rapper Jemini, Damon Albarn of Blur, MF Doom, and now Cee-Lo Green of the Goodie Mob. He further obscures their identities, and his own, working behind pseudonyms – the Gorillaz, Danger Doom, and now Gnarls Barkley.

Despite all his recent chart success and critical acclaim, it doesn’t appear that this is likely to change in the near future. Danger Mouse’s future projects include work with undergroundish disco punkers the Rapture and a second album with Jemini.

Part of the explanation may be found in Danger Mouse’s working method. Unlike other hip hop producers, he doesn’t genuflect before bankable names, humbly offering up beat after beat and hoping they’ll find something to their liking. Instead, he asks his collaborators to leave their sound and identity behind and step into his world. “I only really want to work with people who are okay with giving me that kind of control,” he told BBC Radio 1. “I can’t be really restrained in the thoughts and in the process of how I’m doing stuff.”

“St. Elsewhere” (Downtown), his new album with Cee-Lo (released under the name Gnarls Barkley), is a good example of the good things that can result. The sound is distinctive without being a calling card. At first, you don’t know you’re hearing a Danger Mouse beat, but after listening to a few tracks, it’s hard to imagine anyone else who could have pulled them off.

There are strong hip hop moments. The album opens with “Go-Go Gadget Gospel,” built over a great beat composed of rapid horns, hand claps, and stuttering drums. Soul Machine Cee-Lo Green lives up to his nickname with a full-throated, full-bodied performance that wouldn’t be out of place at a Baptist service. Spirituality – both in style and content – pervades Cee-Lo’s best work throughout the album.

The other great hip hop song on “St. Elsewhere” is a kind of Alvin and the Chipmunks-version of OutKast’s “Ghetto Musick.” The already frantic beat is sped up to an impossible pace on “Transformer,” and Cee-lo’s voice is pitch-shifted to create a cast of cartoon voices reminiscent of the Adult Swim characters that appeared on Danger Mouse’s last project, “The Mouse and the Mask.” Cee-Lo’s playful rapping here is reminiscent of MF Doom’s on that album: “I’m a microchip of the old block / you know not, but I was a robot, and I so rock / and you’ll sure get shot with a gold glock / boy I roll pop,” he raps.

But Danger Mouse doesn’t just do beats; he creates entire songs. In this way, he doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the other hip-hop producers at all. His songs are composed with whole ensembles of musicians in mind (although they are not always in the room) and explore a broad range of emotions.

“Crazy,” the album’s first single, includes cartoonish upright bass strum, swooning strings, and a haunted backup chorus. Cee-Lo matches and plays off the music with his own chopped, looping lyrics: “And then you’re out there / without care, yeah / I was out of touch / but it wasn’t because I didn’t know enough / I just knew too much,” he sings. The song has already broken new ground by becoming the first British single ever to go to no. 1 on download sales alone.

The same dizzying inventiveness carries throughout the album. The title track, “St. Elsewhere,” is a dystopic, water-warped mood piece in which Cee-Lo’s voice gathers in a rush behind his primary vocals to Queenlike effect. “The Boogie Monster” sounds like a children’s Halloween record or something Isaac Hayes’s Chef might have sung on South Park.

“Necromancer,” another standout track, is a dank trip-hop song with skittering beats that show the influence of Tricky. The lyrics describe the song perfectly: “The production is progressive / but the reason is retro / the chords are cold-blooded murder / I named it neo-necro.”

Progressive, retro, and completely original – this is the secret to Danger Mouse’s success.

May 22 at Webster Hall (125 East 11th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues, 212-353-1600).

The New York Sun

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