2008 / Music

Review: Flight Of The Conchords’ Full-Length Debut Is No Joke

New Zealand Duo Transition From Cult-TV Hit To Full-Fledged Recording Artists

On television, comedy-folk duo Flight of the Concords exists in a world without laughter. The pair’s every interaction captured on camera is delivered with inhuman stoicism. Everyone seems oblivious to this deadpanned mentality as well as their dry witticisms — much less the stunning musical interludes that invigorate every show.

Photo: Sub Pop Records

Photo: Sub Pop Records

In the real world, however, the Conchords might be the funniest show that’s not “The Daily Show” or “Colbert Report.”

The career of the New Zealand-reared combo, which consists of the bearded Bret McKenzie and bespectacled Jemaine Clement, has been on a slow burn for much of the last year with their pop-culture profile taking flight and climbing ever higher. Their eponymous HBO comedy show, on which they play themselves as struggling musicians in New York, premiered last winter and has quietly collected a small but devoted audience. (Another season is already in the planning stages). Then, the pair’s debut EP, “The Distant Future,” won a Grammy a couple of months ago for Best Comedy Album.

Sure to benefit from this slow-motion momentum is the pair’s first full-length, self-titled record, which was released this week. The 15-track “Flight of the Conchords” presents many of the songs featured on the show, but in moderately expanded versions. More importantly, this disc is so strong that it should prompt music heads and casual fans alike to take the band more seriously.

If you think the Concords are just a joke band, the joke is on you. This is in part understandable. Many so-called comedy-rock groups like Tenacious D or Spinal Tap or Cheech & Chong, can more accurately be described as comedians who use rock music as an extension of their acts. This isn’t a slag meant to take away from their musicianship or the cleverness of their songs. To be sure, the members of Spinal Tap deserve a spot in the Lyricists Hall of Fame for the verses in “Big Bottom.” However, the style of humor and how the music is utilized identifies where the members’ priorities lie, which is typically to serve the gag.

The Conchords take an entirely different tact. Music doesn’t appear to be a shtick for them. Their songs — even if they’re a tongue-in-cheek, cut-up homage to David Bowie or a dead-serious rip-off of has-been reggae-dub babbler Shabba Ranks — work musically above all else. These tracks are carefully arranged and are more complicated than a pair of stoned, Kiwi suburbanites imitating Top 40 hits in their parent’s basement and posting the results on YouTube. These guys incorporate chuckle-worthy verses or incorporate sly motifs as part of the song and don’t write tunes as a preamble to the punch line. As a result, the songs hold up better under multiple listens.

The group’s live performances typically consist of McKenzie and Clement playing acoustic guitars, but this is a fully fleshed-out disc and each cut is a multi-tracked bouquet of sounds. Because they’re usually two guys playing acoustic guitars and they emphasize humor, the pair does share some obvious similarities to Tenacious D (in addition, the D did have a short-lived stint on HBO in the late ’90s). But, whereas Jack Black’s charismatic bravado and heavy metal ravings are the hallmarks of their sound, the Conchords are two urban bohemians and their style is nerdier, subtler and hipper. Their taste is that of the music-phile and with a straight-face dabbles in hip-hop, computer rock, slow-jam R&B and synthesizer-drenched New Wave.

To guide their studio ambitions, the duo turned to producer Mickey Petralia, who also helmed their EP. Petralia has past experience in both eclecticism as well as music drenched in comedic irony from his time helping Beck complete his plastic-y R&B club disc, “Midnite Vultures.” As with Beck, Petralia demonstrates his skills in how he merges samplers and sequencers with live instrumentation. He also
helped the Conchords tactfully embellish some of the songs, most of which were first featured on the show. He and the band wisely forgo making drastic changes to the arrangements. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to discern any substantial differences between either rendition.

Because these songs appeared initially as videos dispersed in each episode, it’s hard to separate the song from the often surrealistic visual images the group utilized on TV. Listening to a hilarious masterpiece like “Leggy Blonde,” you can perfectly picture castmate Rhys Darby, who plays the Conchord’s long-suffering manager Murray, as he whimpers in song through the cubicles at the fictitious New Zealand consulate, mooning over a visiting IT hottie. The track, which builds and builds with overlapping vocals by Darby, Clement and McKenzie, is a Beatles-influenced, Broadway production number. Oddly, the song’s marvelous percussion breakdown, which features the squeaks and smacks coming from the office’s staplers, tape dispensers and scissors, might all be lost on listeners who haven’t seen the show.

Other tracks make the transition to CD without missing their TV counterparts. “Robots” combines acoustic guitars with elements of synth pop to conjure an antiseptic, dystopian, machine-dominated future. The cut culls musical elements from Kraftwerk, Radiohead and other masters of electro-funk with a storyline borrowed from “The Matrix.” Clement and McKenzie pretend to be bumbling robots who are glad their onetime human overlords are out of commission. The biggest laugh moment is the computer-eze refrain: “00001,” McKenzie sings in a monotone, “000011. 000000111.”

Besides waiting for laughs, the twosome’s range keeps listeners’ on their toes. Clement does a sensuous imitation of Prince during the backhanded love song “The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room),” while McKenzie plays child-like wonder during the ’60s head trip, “The Prince of Parties.” Most impressive is how they transform a Pet Shop Boys tribute, “Inner City Pressure,” into a silly, Marvin Gaye-style epic on the urban experience.

Cut after cut, McKenzie proves to be the more talented singer, but Clement’s deep voice and exotic accent are a brilliant counterpoint. Both men are shameless on the mic, unflinchingly singing in a screechy falsetto when steering the song through a ballad or showcasing some clumsy rapping skills in a hip-hop jam. The duo awkwardly duels on mic throughout “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenocoros,” ducking and weaving between the acoustic guitar licks and simple drum machine smacks. Neither succeeds in outdoing the other with his rhymes. On “Mutha’*****,” they’re not rivals but clear collaborators. They trade lines like a dorky crew who leans in a gangsta direction. Interrupted by spaces inserted to supposedly cover censored curses, Clement and then McKenzie ride a sonorous acoustic guitar strum and squirming, computer-funk keyboards as they vent about ATM fees and then a dastardly fruit vendor who discriminates against them because they’re New Zealanders. “He won’t sell an apple to a Kiwi,” McKenzie objects.

The album’s unassailable climax is “Business Time,” in which Clement leads us through a laugh-out-loud, four-minute Barry White lovefest. Clement makes the most out of his bass voice during the slow-building seduction, narrating his attempts to woo his reluctant partner to some mid-week sexual escapades. Cooing and groaning to a sleaze funk soundtrack, Clement in his mind is the master loverman reveling in how his lady is toying with him as if every part of their dull domestic routine was super-charged foreplay. Accents from a chamberlin heighten the lascivious mood and lead-in to the polyrhythmic passages. At the end, Clement wants her to know he’s ready to take care of business. “I remove my clothes very, very clumsily/Tripping sensuously over my pants. Now, I’m naked except for my socks/And you know when I’m down to my socks, what time it is” he purrs. When Clement eventually wows his conquest for a paltry two minutes, he responds, “You say you want more? Well, I’m not surprised. But I’m very sleepy.”

Unlike Clement’s dissatisfied partner, listeners will not be dissatisfied with “Flight of the Conchords.” They need only start it all again by click the play button. It’s no joke.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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