If Tenacious D is a ninth grader who just discovered the rockin’ awesomeness of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, then Flight of the Conchords is his college-age brother, broadening his musical tastes away from home and finding that the really cute girls are the ones who hang out in coffeehouses listening to good-looking but sensitive townie dudes play boring folk songs. Fortunately, this undergrad doesn’t want to play boring folk songs — Flight of the Conchords wants to win the ladies’ affection with folk-song parodies!
Or maybe that’s how it started, but the New Zealand duo’s self-titled full-length from Sub Pop (their 2007 EP, The Distant Future, won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album earlier this year) never strays into A Mighty Wind territory. Luckily it never wanders onto “Weird Al” Yankovic’s property either. FOTC’s songs are built on a solid foundation of pop and soul melodies and a genuine love of music, with funny lyrics and subject matter layered on top; if the songs were built the other way around it would just be shoddy construction. By the way, I haven’t seen Flight of the Conchords’ self-titled HBO show. (On a similar note, I didn’t see Tenacious D’s own self-titled HBO show until after I’d heard their self-titled debut album in 2001, but Jack Black and Kyle Gass’s “acoustic metal” duo only made three episodes from 1997 to ’99, so it wasn’t difficult to watch the complete series in one sitting.) I haven’t seen any YouTube clips from Flight of the Conchords either, so I don’t have any context for the songs on the album apart from the album itself. But that’s okay, because the songs work fine on their own.
“Flute of the Commodores,” as a friend of mine calls them, are singer-songwriter- guitarist-actors Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, who started playing music and performing comedy together in college back in 1996. Their long-term chemistry is apparent throughout their album, especially on the Hall & Oates/Marvin Gaye pastiche “Think About It,” which laments the state of the world, especially the dilemma that’s caused when cheap child labor produces sneakers that aren’t any cheaper in the store. FOTC has a few more clever pastiches up its sleeve, including “Boom” (you’re welcome, Shabba Ranks) and “Inner City Pressure” (a tip of the hat to Pet Shop Boys).
The two best homages are at the end of the album: “Business Time” and “Bowie.” The latter is a skewed tribute to the rock ‘n’ roll chameleon, riffing on the melodies of “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “Let’s Dance” among others, and containing lines like “Do they smoke grass out in space, Bowie, or do they smoke AstroTurf?” “Business Time” is the most laugh-out-loud song on Flight — it borrows a bit of Barry White’s satin soul and silky baritone delivery to poke fun at the reality of bedroom seduction among longtime couples whose sex lives have become a bit too predictable: “Then we’re in the bathroom brushing our teeth … It’s all part of the foreplay — I love foreplay … Then you sort out the recycling … That isn’t part of the foreplay process, but it is still very important.” Truth be told, the entire album is filled with funny lyrics and quotable one-liners. At the beginning of “Boom,” McKenzie says, “I want to tell her how hot she is, but she’ll think I’m being sexist. She’s so hot she’s making me sexist … bitch.” One more and then I’ll stop — FOTC’s idea of a romantic compliment in “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)” is “You’re so beautiful / Like a tree / Or a high-class prostitute.”
Flight has a mid-album lull that’s marked by songs like “Mutha’uckas” and “Robots.” They’re not bad songs by any means; it’s just that the subjects of barely-bleeped- out cuss words in popular music and “the distant future — the year 2000,” a future in which robots have taken over the world, have been explored before. FOTC also has a tendency, just like Tenacious D, to make sex the subject of song after song. Then again, most love songs you hear on the radio are about sex, not love. FOTC and the D are just callin’ out the obvious, y’all. (Truth in comedy 4 eva! ) But while the D plugged in for many of the songs on their album in order to amplify their comic cock rock, FOTC sticks mostly to acoustic guitars and tasteful keyboards. They’re a gentler breed, these Kiwis, possibly because they know the softer- rocking route will score them more of those coffeehouse girls.
There’s much more blue-eyed soul on Flight of the Conchords than I would’ve expected, having not seen the show (though I read last summer that Daryl Hall made a cameo in one episode). In addition to “Think About It,” “Business Time,” and “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room),” there’s “Ladies of the World,” which has a false fade-out followed by 60 seconds of shimmering, ethereal falsettos — it’s a moment that took me completely by surprise and is gorgeous enough to make you think Shuggie Otis and producer Thom Bell have momentarily hijacked the album.
Those 60 seconds prove that Flight of the Conchords isn’t a novelty act. I can’t wait to rent the first-season DVDs and see what these guys can do within the confines of a half-hour sitcom.
Flight of the Conchords is available at Amazon.com.