Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere (Downtown/Atlantic) Two images have been released to promote this collaboration between Atlanta natives Cee-lo Green and DJ Danger Mouse. One, an illustration of a handgun firing off a big black heart; two, a picture of the duo dressed in diapers and bowler hats — like A Clockwork Orange meets Charlie Chaplin meets “adult baby” fetishism. (Go ahead. Google “adult baby.”) Based on the six leaks I’ve heard, I can confidently state this is 2006’s first sure-thing contender for year-end critics’ lists. Where Danger Mouse’s previous works (The Grey Album, Gorillaz’ Demon Days) have relied on high-concept tricks, here the brain plays second fiddle to the heart. The songs are designed both for hip-hop heads and fans of contemplative, emotionally resonant singer-songwriters like Elliott Smith and Antony. Cee-lo’s voice — high, warm, almost womanly — makes lyrics about suicide and madness sound like slow jams. The backing tracks are an amalgam of hip-hop, soul, and everything-and-the-kitchen-sink production choices. My favorite leak, an unnamed tune featuring overdriven breaks underneath a gently plucked Spanish guitar, finds Cee-lo questioning hip-hop’s violent, blingy orthodoxy. “I prefer peace,” he says. “Wouldn’t have to have one worldly possession/But essentially I’m an animal, so just what do I do with the aggression?” It’s a strikingly philosophical tack for urban music, and while it’s not without precedent — I’m reminded of Geto Boys’ 1992 hit, “My Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” — I’m hopeful it will help push hip-hop into a much-needed existential phase.

Soul Sides Volume 1 (Zealous Records) Oliver Wang (Oakland Tribune columnist, Cal State Long Beach lecturer, occasional L.A. Weekly contributor) is a well-established authority on hip-hop and soul. This compilation, mostly culled from tracks posted to his MP3 blog,, encapsulates the magic of the Internet’s “celestial jukebox.” Amanda Ambrose’s loopy warble is sequenced alongside Erma Franklin’s deeply felt 1967 take on “Piece of My Heart” (a song quickly made famous by Janis Joplin), which is followed by a torch song by Sharon Jones. The juxtapositions are bizarre. Ambrose is known as a ’60s jazz singer, and her song was released on Bee Pee, an obscure imprint owned by the Church of Scientology; Erma Franklin was Aretha’s little-known sister; Jones is a 21st-century funk revivalist. Though the thematic and temporal illogic would make a “real” reissue label blanch, this compilation isn’t a canonical exercise, it’s a wild array of free associations that make you feel and laugh and dance.

Interpol × Editors × She Wants Revenge = Joy Division That all three bands shamelessly cop the sound and vision of Joy Division doesn’t lessen their music’s impact — Editors’ songs “Lights” and “Bullets” slay me — but if Ian Curtis hadn’t killed himself a quarter-century ago, he’d probably be tightening the noose right about now. Rumors abound that Interpol have signed to Interscope; U.K.’s Editors are being marketed in a partnership between the Fader and Sony; and, as we all know by now, She Wants Revenge are signed to an imprint run by Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst.

Aki Tsuyuko, Hokane (Thrill Jockey) & Tom Verlaine, Around (Thrill Jockey) Musicians don’t just tolerate overindulgence, they depend on it (viz. disco, post-grunge bands like Creed, emo-boy haircuts). That’s why new records by Tom Verlaine (legendary Television guitarist) and Aki Tsuyuko (peer to post-rockers Jim O’Rourke and Tortoise) are so refreshing. Both show the virtues of underdoing it, meandering like jazz-fusion LPs, only without the wanky solos. Verlaine’s album is a slow-burning flame — an image reinforced by such track titles as “The Sun Gliding,” “Candle” and “A Burned Letter.” Tsuyuko’s record is more lighthearted; imagine the Teletubbies riffing on Erik Satie. Record label site for both albums:

Reality-Based Listening Remember when you heard a band before deciding what you thought of them? Yeah, the 20th century was awesome. If you’re a nostalgic sort, however, there’s still time to reconsider months-old records by the Strokes and Arctic Monkeys on their merits. Pre-release wisdom led us to believe the Strokes’ First Impressions on Earth was a “sellout,” while the Artic Monkeys’ debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, would change the universe. Upon further reflection, First Impressions sounds like a mature statement, while Arctic Monkeys seem like a band with some brilliant demos under their belt and a great future. Full stop. Let this be an object lesson in the danger of judging a band by its Web-leaked single. And promise not to talk about how much you love Tapes ’n Tapes, or Love Is All, or Serena Maneesh — for at least another few months.

Guns N’ Roses leaks As I was saying .?.?. upward of a half-dozen tracks from GN’R’s long-gestating Chinese Democracy have been sighted on the Interweb. I’ve heard three: “The Blues,” “I.R.S.,” and “There Was a Time” (abbreviated as “T.W.A.T.”; ha, ha, get it?). While criticism could easily put off an actual release date another five years, here we go: They’re disappointing. GN’R’s bombastic spirit is alive, though. “The Blues,” in particular, has the epic lilt that’s the X-factor uniting bands as diverse as Queen and Radiohead — a trait sorely lacking in these indie-rock-friendly times. However, there aren’t enough hooks to plait a single hair extension on Axl Rose’s ruby-red skull.

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