Rock column, Mail on Sunday, July 9 2006

Gnarls Barkley
Hammermith Apollo, London
FOUR STARS

Holly Palmer
100 Club, London
FIVE STARS

Sometimes the poor old singles chart gets it absolutely right. The most popular song of 2006 has also been the best. Soulful, artful, and irresistibly catchy without becoming tiresome, Crazy, by the American duo Gnarls Barkley, already feels like an all-time classic.

Their album, St Elsewhere, has done less well, settling in the lower reaches of the top 40 and prompting mutterings about one-hit wonders. But there is more to this project than one great song. The brains behind it is Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), the producer of two landmark records in Gorillaz’ eclectically brilliant Demon Days and his own Grey Album, which mashed the Beatles up with Jay-Z and blazed a trail for the new Beatles-remix musical, Love.

His frontman is Cee-Lo (Thomas Calloway), originally a rapper, now a soul singer in the great Motown tradition of effortless charm. Gnarls Barkley are widely filed under hip-hop, but they’re actually a retro rock-soul band harking back to the largely forgotten moment when the Beatles (them again) inspired dozens of mildly psychedelic bands to make ‘experimental music that still had melody,’ as Danger Mouse puts it.

If this is a peculiar choice, it gives them a sharp identity, which they reinforce with other choices. They appear in public only as characters from films. On tour, the duo turns into a big band, with 11 sidemen, male and female, black and white. Tonight they’re all in school uniforms, in homage to School Of Rock, which illustrates the perils of cultural reference: to local eyes, it’s more like School Disco, the less-than-stylish Eighties club night at Hammersmith Palais.

Cee-Lo, a frontman made for the age of obesity, bounces around centre stage, a near-spherical figure in oversized shorts, half Buddha, half Bunter. Danger Mouse hunches over his keyboards behind him, the thin controller, Eno with an afro. It’s a compelling contrast.

The music is a blend of opposites too, engaging one moment, alienating the next. Cee-Lo writes a strong lyric, conversational but incisive, tackling contemporary neuroses, and the tunes are strong, if not in Crazy’s class: songs like Smiley Faces, Gone Daddy Gone and Just A Thought will easily stave off one-hit wonderdom. But the psychedelia palls, as it usually does if you don’t have the drugs to match, and the album is not quite the gem it could have been.

Live, it works better, lifted by Cee-Lo’s cuddly charisma, the crystalline sound and playful lights, the adrenaline rush of Crazy and the sustained verve of the band, featuring a snakily excellent rhythm section (Chris Vrenna from Nine Inch Nails on drums, Cedric Lemoyne on bass), a string quartet who start demure and soon turn demented, and three backing singers who are recording artists in their own right.

Among them is Holly Palmer, the California singer-songwriter who made the best pop-soul album of last year (I Confess, available at CDBaby.com). On Thursday she was supplying harmonies and percussion for Gnarls in front of 4,000 people. On Tuesday she played alone with a guitar for a few dozen at the 100 Club. The attendance was so out of proportion to her talent, it was like going to see Britney Spears, in reverse.

She played mostly new songs, which was bold, but got away with it because they were warm, smart and direct, and she sang fabulously well, mixing easy intimacy with occasional bursts of power. After releasing her last album herself, she has now signed to the American indie label Mercy Records and has made an album with Beck’s band for release next year. Stardom beckons – one of these days. Listen for yourself at myspace.com/hollypalmer.