Friday Jukebox: Danger Mouse, the Great and Mighty
Both of my parents got their undergraduate degrees in musical performance. My father got his PhD in music history. My wife was in the marching band in high school. My daughter has cycled through piano (she was good), clarinet (she was good), and now, percussion (she’s getting better). I, meanwhile, have never managed to show any proficiency for music. I cannot remember the lyrics to my favorite songs; I cannot keep the beat on my steering wheel when I’m stuck in traffic. It’s frankly miraculous that I don’t poke myself in the eye when I’m plugging my earphones into my iPod.
I have always valued, above all else, the ability to create a single great track. This might be a holdover from the intense disappointment of wasting my money on albums as a young(er) man; there was nothing worse than buy an album based upon a great song and discovering that the band had reached its peak in the creation of that single. As a teenager, the obvious workaround was the mix tape. The creation of these allowed me to enjoy the songs that I liked. To this day, I’ll still praise performers to the heavens if the entirety of their musical output could be used to create a great mixtape.
That said, if you put together a great collection of everything the Beastie Boys ever did, chances are you’re getting that same Beastie Boys feel in all of the tracks. There’s an obvious workaround though: producers. Although producers are getting their sound on an album, the performers vary, and because the performers vary, the final product is more varied. A few weeks ago, I championed Timbaland as one example of this. There are (even) better examples though, none as great as Danger Mouse. My guess is, knowingly or otherwise, you’ve consumed Danger Mouse’s work. Below is a sampling of it, ten of his best tracks in no particular order.
1. “Last Living Souls” by Gorillaz
We could fight about Demon Days being one of the great albums. From its very beginning to its very end, Danger Mouse’s production manages to coalesce the wild personalities that comprised the Gorillaz concept. Worth noting: this album challenged me to pick a single song; there are so many good ones, including “Kids with Guns”, “Dirty Harry”, “El Manana”, “All Alone”, and “Feel Good Inc.” The entire record is really an absurd accomplishment.
2. “Old School” by Danger Doom ft. Talib Kweli
There are great tracks throughout The Mouse and the Mask -- I thought about including “Sofa King” but I thought it wasn’t quite mature enough for the high-minded amongst us. But then I just linked to it; I’m so conflicted! Anyway, I’m trying to think of an appropriate way to describe what The Mouse and the Mask is, other than conceptually strange; it features MF Doom’s rhymes laid over beats assembled from the music used in The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
3. “Gone Daddy Gone” by Gnarls Barkley
I remember when Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere emerged; “Crazy” was getting played on my town’s pop station. It sounded distinctly different from everything else getting played. When a friend approached me about the record, his description went something like, “OH MY GOD YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS YOU WILL LOVE IT…” followed by spasms. It, as advertised delivered. I don’t think any song caught my attention more than St. Elsewhere‘s cover of a relatively-famous-to-my-mind Violent Femmes track; where did that come from?
Sidenote: Cee-Lo Green’s unexpected covers of unexpected tracks are truly great.
4. “Going On” by Gnarls Barkley
Same collaboration, but two years later. The results though still remain consistently strong. The Odd Couple was more chilled out than their debut album, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that from this. The story of these two getting together incidentally? It’s fantastic. From Danger Mouse’s Wikipedia profile:
While in Athens, Burton took second place in a 1998 talent contest and was asked to open for a concert at the University of Georgia featuring OutKast and Goodie Mob. Afterwards, Burton approached Cee Lo Green, a member of Goodie Mob, and gave him an instrumental demo tape. It would be several years before the pair made contact again, but the two would eventually collaborate as Gnarls Barkley
“Hey, here’s my tape.”
“Cool, maybe we’ll do something some day.”
*The two of them get together some day and build a money printing machine*
5. “Everytime I’m With You” by Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse
I’m trying to imagine more heartbreaking lyrics than “Every time I’m with you/I am drunk/and you are too/well what the hell/else are we/supposed to do?” That might be a throwback to my own history with alcohol and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with Danger Mouse. Still, it’s worth pointing out. Meanwhile, if Danger Mouse had once been lumped as just a hip-hop producer, his work here showed him branching out.
6. “The Ghost Inside” by Broken Bells
Oh, whatever -- it’s just Danger Mouse deciding that he’d like to create his own band, and on its first album, he kicks out the track above, and then for good measure, “Sailing To Nowhere” and “The High Road.” Shrug.
7. “Two Against One” by Danger Mouse with Jack White
Danger Mouse thought he’d make a spaghetti Western record with Daniele Luippi, so that’s what he did. It produced this track. The rest of the album? Not bad. This track? Utterly sublime.
8. “After The Fall” by Norah Jones
Credit briefly to Norah Jones; she could have made another Starbucks album that would have afforded her the opportunity to purchase another 27 yachts. She didn’t. She went in on something more heavily produced, something more haunting, something with more electric music, something with less commercial viability. Critics weren’t entirely amused with this, but the album had its moments, especially the track above. (“4 Broken Hearts” and “Say Goodbye” weren’t bad either.)
9. “Little Black Submarines” by The Black Keys
Rock, Rock, ROCKITTY ROCK! And in case there’s any confusion, this comes off the same album that gave us the ubiquitous “Lonely Boy“, a song that was everywhere at least in part because it also tore the room apart. I’ve got one song to go before arriving at what I’d describe as a potentially stunning conclusion.
10. “This Head I Hold” by Electric Guest
I can’t speak for the album. I haven’t heard it. But this was one of the most recent songs to grab me and then refuse to let go. Much like heroin, I HAD TO HAVE IT, except for having heroin, because I’ve never had heroin. But otherwise: exactly like heroin.
The thing that we now have to confront is the very real possibility that Danger Mouse might be a generational Rick Rubin. And lest we think there are no connections between the two, I offer this:
That’s Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” as produced by Rubin. You can see him in the video -- floor length fur coat, ZZ Top beard, cowboy hat, and all -- starting at the :55 mark. Here’s Danger Mouse’s take on the same track from Grey Album the first thing that put him on the musical map:
The Grey Album is Danger Mouse’s combination of Jay-Z’s lyrical tracks from The Black Album and musical tracks from The Beatles’ The White Album. That idea alone was enough to create the man’s legacy, but everything he’s done since has cemented it.