Every now and then, you get to experience art from someone so damned perfect at what they do, you question whether anyone will ever be able to touch it. Not in a jaded, cynical way, mind you; strictly in a "Man, the bar's been raised to the Stratosphere, dude" manner.
Ironic, then, that Kiwi pop jokesters Flight of the Conchords--two guys who've made a career out of poking fun at their own foibles and shortcomings--inspire that kind of awe in me, and apparently a lot of other people, too. The Conchords sold out three shows in a row at Seattle's sizeable Paramount Theater May 11, 12, and 13, and the missus and I coughed up the bucks to see all three performances. Yep, they're that kind of special; that kind of funny; and that kind of genius.
Calling Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement's act stand-up comedy or rock parody sells 'em short. Sure, like a lot of Weird-Al-come-latelies they co-opt current and past pop music and reconfigure/regurgitate it through a funhouse mirror. And between songs, they can still work an audience into spasms of uncontrollable laughter as capably as any stand-up comics. But the Conchords add two elements that, to date, have largely been forsaken in the 'novelty song' genre/ghetto--musicianship and real, stick-to-your-ribs songwriting. It was all on display in spades at the Paramount last week.
The straight skinny on all three shows:
Arj Barker (who plays deadpan a--hole Dave on the Conchords' hilarious HBO sitcom) opened each set with a stand-up routine somewhere between George Carlin and, um, Dave on Flight of the Conchords. It says something that I laughed all three nights, despite most of the jokes being the same.
Bret and Jemaine played for about an hour-and-a-half each evening. Certain elements remained consistent: The great new cut, "Too Many Dicks on the Dancefloor" (presented by the boys replete with cardboard robot suits) opened each set, the hilarious "Hurt Feelings" came up second on the bill, and all three nights saw a great Johnny Cash riff, "Stana," get stretched like taffy. Their off-the-cuff banter kept things from getting too redundant from night to night, and they weren't afraid to tweak the songs to engaging effect: Jemaine threw a hysterical Ahnuld impersonation into the stew on "The Humans are Dead," and they turned the R and B throb of “Sugalumps” into a slow a cappella jam by welding it with “We’re Both in Love with a Sexy Lady”.
The second show on Tuesday May 12 was my favorite, in large part because the Conchords played the most songs. It also marked the only one of the trio of dates in which they played the mighty “Bowie,” my choice for the best satiric rock song this side of Spinal Tap.
All three nights, in between hearty chuckles, I kept finding myself in ardent admiration over something that these guys don’t always get a lot of credit for: Their musicianship. Bret and Jemaine both play guitar pretty damned capably for a couple of self-proclaimed folk parodists, and Bret switched from guitar to keyboard to drums on a dime. Moreover, the songs they played and sung couldn’t be better. Seriously.
The key, so simple but so blasted important: Write a brilliant pop song, with truly sublime hooks, melodies, and harmonies, and your humorous song grows legs that’ll keep running to infinity. Yeah, “Carol Brown” is a funny riff on a poor schlemiel plagued by a chorus of ex-girlfriends. But it’s wedded to an enchanting tune that the Beatles or Robyn Hitchcock would be proud to call their own. And both Conchords possess genuinely beautiful voices that add to the pop yumminess (even when they’re horsing around).
Which, for me at least, gets back to the whole bar-raised-to-the-stratosphere equation. These guys jab needles into the balloons of pop-music pomposity so effectively that it’s cast a whole new light on every other pop song I’ve listened to since, and they’ve done it with songcraft so formidable that it puts most so-called ‘serious musicians’ to shame. All the while, Bret and Jemaine still come off as regular joes who’re just horsing around.
My favorite example of the week: The recording of “Ladies of the World” (a rib-tickling Kool and the Gang parody) ends with about a minute of acoustic strumming, hand-claps, and the Conchords crooning layered falsetto harmonies. It’s one minute of pop beauty so sublime that I found myself replaying just that minute, over and over again, during one commute last week. The Flight of the Conchords were both probably just horsing around when they recorded it, and they’d likely just laugh at the notion of said horsing-around being taken seriously, but those 58 seconds sorta made me swoon.
Speaking of swooning, the missus surely aroused the envy of many of the ladies of the world on a couple of levels. First, she brought her camera and exhaustively documented the May 13th show (feel free to head over to her Blog for more pics AND video, and please don’t sue her, HBO…). And second, we hung out after that night’s show and met both of these Smart-Girl Heartthrobs face-to-face.
Bret and Jemaine couldn’t have been nicer, enduring a sound soaking from some extra-precipitous Seattle skies with nary a peep of protest and treating all of the fans outside with attentiveness and respect. Music nerd that I am, I had to tell them what great songwriters they were (a compliment that seemed to really surprise and delight the both of them), and Rita just went the gracious and polite route and thanked them for playing three nights in a row in the Emerald City. Swoon away, girls.