Over the past two years, the parodists from New Zealand, Flight of the Conchords, have scored with a hit HBO show (in which they play a hapless struggling band whose mundane adventures are punctuated by song) and won a Grammy award with their debut U.S. E.P. (seriously, a Grammy, and seriously, for an E.P., which must have made all those losers who wrote full albums feel like suckers). One half of the group even had a moderately successful indie film, Eagle vs. Shark. While Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement may not be household names, they are getting there.
Another step in that direction is the release today of Flight of the Conchords’ self-titled full-length album. The group had self-released some recordings in New Zealand, recorded a BBC radio series, and even had that award-winning E.P. last year, but this is its first proper studio album and their first major U.S. release.
Of course, it’s a soundtrack, a selection of songs performed on the band’s HBO series. And like most soundtracks it’s by no means a comprehensive catalog of the show’s songs: at 15 tracks it would have been hard to include more. Yet it’s missing some of the band’s best tunes, like the flawlessly funny and well-written “Tape of Love.” The song exemplifies the central conundrum of the band. The mix of overwrought earnestness that begins the song is straight out of Mike + the Mechanics’ iconic “The Living Years,” pondering “Love is like a roll of tape/ It’s real good for making two things one/ But just like that roll of tape/ Love sometimes breaks off before you’re done” before the triumphal, “Bittersweet Symphony”-like chorus kicks in with “Brown paper, white paper/Stick it together with the tape, the tape of love.”
The thing is that the song, in addition to being hilarious, is also nearly as catchy as those smash hit referents and that makes Flight of the Conchords stand out in the crowded genre of musical comedy: These dudes don’t just spoof songs, they can write songs. Somewhere between Weird Al’s groan-worthy punning and Randy Newman’s wry autership, these guys force the ultimate identity crisis: am I singing along to these songs and repeating the lyrics because they’re catchy, great tunes—because it’s music—or am I just another moron endlessly repeating lines from Chappelle’s Show?
It’s a thin line, to be sure.
Adding to this vague sense that Flight of the Conchords may actually be “good” is the company they keep on their label and a resurgence of audio-focused comedy. This isn’t some HBO afterthought of a soundtrack album, but a release in conjunction with Sub Pop records, onetime breakers of Nirvana and Mudhoney and latter-day fablers of indie reconstruction, thanks in part to, yes, comedy albums. Alongside recent label successes like the Shins and the Postal Service have been releases from David Cross, Patton Oswalt, and Eugene Mirman—and falling aesthetically somewhere in the middle of all that you get Flight of the Conchords.
Sub Pop’s Steve Manning said, “The comedy records were really inspirational to us here; they have sold quite well and helped redefine the label at a time when we were really struggling. David Cross came out near the Shins and Postal Service and really helped turn the label around.”
Other labels are following suit, like Matador with its upcoming release of Earles & Jensen’s “Just Farr a Laugh.” So given the push toward reviving the comedy album market (not a little influenced by Internet sensations like Tom Scharpling’s “The Best Show” on WFMU), it makes sense to capitalize on bands blending humor with an indie-rock sensibility and the musical ability to send up more genres than just indie rock. For other examples, look at the phenomenal success of SNL short “Lazy Sunday,” helped plenty by the song’s beat being pretty well done, or the music-comedy work of hipster comics Zach Galifialakis, Demetri Martin and others. Even Will Oldham and Cat Power have experimented with comedy (with varying degrees of success).
To sweeten the deal, these comedy releases are getting the star packaging treatment, from detailed booklets to, in the Conchords case, a poster-sized illustration of the band, and some frogs, and maybe a space shuttle. It’s a move to appeal to the age-old function of the comedy album: lifestyle accessory.
What distinguishes the band further from the history of cheesy spoof songs is its attention to genre. McKenzie and Clement are pop chameleons. They employ falsetto, they get dolled up in ridiculous accents (and acknowledge that their natural accents are pretty ridiculous too), and they even don robot voices on “Robots,” singing “The humans are dead/We used poisonous gasses/And we poisoned their asses.” They ape French lounge (“Foux du Fafa”), dancehall (“Boom”), hip-hop (“Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenocerous”), and offer plenty of their seemingly signature blend of soft rock and smooth jams (“A Kiss is Not a Contract,” “Prince of Parties,” “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room),” “Business Time”). There’s an homage to David Bowie, called “Bowie,” that traverses from Major Tom to Let’s Dance, with queries like “Hey Bowie, do you have one really funky sequined space suit? / Or do you have several ch-changes? / Do you smoke grass out in space, Bowie?/ Or do they smoke Astroturf?/ Ooh!” Then there’s also the amazing interpretation of the Pet Shop Boys—its utter nerdiness betraying a love of source material absent in, say, “Like a Surgeon”—using the gothic synthy dance-pop of “West End Girls” to inspire “Inner City Pressure,” “Neon signs, hidden messages/ Questions, answers, fetishes/ You know you’re not in high finance/ Considering second hand underpants/ Check your mind, how’d it get so bad?/ What happened to those other underpants you had?”
And such adoration of the various incarnations and personalities of pop is what led inexorably to a proper studio album. One wonders if, having worked with a real producer, Mickey Petralia, (Beck, Ladytron) and packaged their music just like any other album, the boys will want to keep going back to the small screen.
HBO will be sticking with the Conchords’ program, now working on its second season. It’s interesting to note that HBO was also the channel of Tenacious D, a musical comedy duo featuring Jack Black that fared far worse. Yet Conchords probably have more in common with Ricky Gervais’ Extras (and not just for having songs in the show centered around David Bowie), which speaks to the intellectual depth of the humor and the project. “Maybe it’s okay to hum these tunes after all!”