I’m going to talk about fun pop music this time, which means I’ll probably get letters.
Every time I champion something frothy and entertaining, I seem to disappoint some people. It happened when I lauded Enuff Z’Nuff, it happened when I went to bat for Hanson and The Click Five, and most recently, it happened when I included “The Fox,” the absurdist phenomenon from Ylvis, on my year-end CD mix. For the record, I seriously think “The Fox” is one of the best songs of 2013, and it was a damn good year. The horse/Morse bit alone makes me grin just thinking about it.
I’m not absolutely sure what people have against fun. I’m an early Beatles fan (and a late Beatles fan, to be fair), so I’m all about joyous songs that just want to entertain. If the songs are well crafted, I don’t need them to spark any kind of deep introspection, or connect with me in any other emotional way. I’m not saying they shouldn’t, or even that they don’t, just that I don’t need them to. Take, for example, one of my favorite albums of all time, Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. It’s an astonishingly intricate work of art, and it’s overall just the zaniest thing, zipping from songs about manifest destiny to anthems about vegetables, and concluding with “Good Vibrations.” It doesn’t want to do anything but make you… um, smile.
I’d never suggest that “The Fox” is as good as SMiLE, but I think the impulse is similar, and I bet the song would make Wilson laugh. I don’t want my intelligence insulted – I’m not looking for the musical equivalent of an Adam Sandler movie, and if I were, there’s always the Insane Clown Posse. I love smart, fun pop music – there’s almost no kind of music I love more – and I would contend that everything I’ve mentioned above fits into that category. (And the two things I’m about to mention fit into it too.) Music can do all kinds of things – it can make you think, feel, consider other perspectives, spur you to action. But it can also just be a grand old time, and in so doing, it can help you see this world in a more positive, soul-filling light.
Wow, that was impressively serious for a column about fun. Anyway.
One of my go-tos lately for intelligent music that makes me dance around like a moron is Bryan Scary. I’ve mentioned him a lot so far this year – Scary is in the middle of releasing a series of new EPs from a project he calls Evil Arrows. The third such EP is now upon us, and it’s up to the high standards of the previous two. In many ways, in fact, EP3 is the best of the bunch.
Scary writes deceptively complex pop music, dashing through odd time signatures and loop-de-loop melodies with an ease that almost sounds effortless. Like the best smart pop, his feels like it poured out of him in one fun-loving burst, belying the fact that it was no doubt labored over. Scary’s a great songwriter – with the release of this EP, we have 18 new songs from him this year, and none of them are stinkers. At the same time, Evil Arrows still feels like his attempt to streamline his work, to cut down on some of the brain-bending insanity that marked his previous records, particularly his masterpiece, Daffy’s Elixir.
This time out, five of the six songs feature the other Arrows, drummer Everet Almond and guitarist Graham Norwood (and the sixth one features Almond). “Little Stars” begins with that trademark Scary piano sound, halfway between the Beatles and an Old West saloon, and dives down a bunch of melodic rabbit holes in its scant 2:14. That’s the overarching theme of this project – zippy, fun songs that jump in and out in less than four minutes, packing as much melodic punch in as they can. You’ll be humming the “la-la-la” section of “Little Stars” for hours, and you’ll just get around to marveling at how tight this band sounds now when the song screeches to a halt.
I absolutely love this EP, perhaps more than I loved the previous two. The breezy “Never’s Altar” is a delight, the hyperactive thrasher “The Wits Are Going Down the Drain” kicks all kinds of ass, “The Motion Picture Managers (Of Love)” skips confidently through its 7/8 minefield, complete with Queen-style backing vocals, and “Kamikaze Daughter” is the closest Evil Arrows have come to a folksy epic. The record ends with the funky-glam “Rejection,” horns and all, and once again, my standard complaint applies here – this is just too short. I want more. Eighteen of these awesome little gems is still not enough.
A fourth Evil Arrows EP is coming, and I hope Scary just keeps on going, releasing these every couple of months for years. He’s really on to something. Hear all three EPs here.
But Scary, delightful as he is, isn’t the reason I’ve been smiling like a kid in a penny candy store all week. That honor belongs to one of the absolute geniuses of our time, the one and only “Weird Al” Yankovic.
My parents can tell you that I’ve been a Weird Al fan since I was about 10 years old. I didn’t really get what he was doing then. For instance, I had never heard the Kinks classic “Lola,” and couldn’t recognize the soaring, blipping synthesizer sounds of Devo as characteristically them. I just knew that “Yoda” and “Dare to Be Stupid” made me laugh. I remember cracking up until I couldn’t breathe at “Another One Rides the Bus,” his accordion-fueled parody of Queen. The first of his parodies I really remember getting was “Eat It,” as I was (like everyone in the ‘80s) fully versed in Michael Jackson’s hits. I remember when Even Worse came out, fueled by the awesome video for “Fat,” and I would put Al’s album cover next to Jackson’s and laugh uncontrollably.
As I’ve gotten older, my appreciation for Yankovic has only grown. I’m not kidding when I call him a genius. He’s best known as a parody artist, and I guess that’s fair, but even in the age of YouTube, his parodies are far and away the best ones on the market. It’s his attention to detail that sets him apart – he goes line by line, syllable by syllable, matching up his new lyrics with the original ones, and he knows how to fully flesh out a concept. But I keep coming back for his original songs, usually written in the style of a particular artist without copping any one song. Al is a master at this. Just listen to “Genius in France,” the best homage/send-up of Frank Zappa I have ever heard from anyone.
Weird Al, as an artist and a cultural entity, has long outlasted most of the people he got famous parodying. His recording career began in 1979 with “My Bologna,” a parody of “My Sharona” by the Knack, and his first album was issued in 1983. That means he’s been at this for 35 years, and he’s had the same band of incredible musicians (Steve Jay, Jim West and Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz) since 1982. I’ve long maintained that Weird Al has one of the best bands in the world, because they have to sound like everybody, and have to play in virtually every style.
Al’s first big album was In 3-D, released in 1984. Let’s take a look at the artists he parodied on that record: Michael Jackson, Men Without Hats, The Greg Kihn Band, The Police and Survivor. For one reason or another, all but Survivor (ironically) are gone. “Weird Al” Yankovic still stands. He’s just released his 14th album, Mandatory Fun, which he says may be his last. If it is, he’s gone out on a high note. After releasing a video a day for eight fun-filled days and basically taking over the Internet, Weird Al racked up his first number one album on the Billboard charts. It’s about damn time.
As for the album itself, it’s more of the same. But in this case, “the same” is perfectly delightful. I was pleased to see that I didn’t have to do much research this time – I’ve had to look up the songs Al has parodied for his last three records, but this time, I had only missed Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” which Yankovic transformed into “Handy.” It’s a top-notch parody, and while I don’t usually like to ascribe deeper meanings to what Yankovic does, what I love about “Handy” is that it turns a song about being a useless person into a song about being a useful one. His work is full of that kind of subversion, and it’s almost always that subtle.
Mandatory Fun is, as usual, made up of five parodies, six originals and a polka. The parodies all rise to Yankovic’s high standard, although some are wittier than others. “Foil” rewrites Lorde’s “Royals,” and though it is about the thin sheets of aluminum that keep your sandwich fresh, it takes a screaming left turn halfway through, setting up an awesome joke. “Tacky” turns Pharell’s “Happy” into an anthem for those who wear stripes with plaid, and “Word Crimes” is an ingenious smackdown of grammar illiterates set to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Only “Inactive,” a middling parody of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” doesn’t quite pass muster here, although there are some funny lines.
The polka, titled “NOW That’s What I Call Polka,” is splendid as usual. Yankovic has been telling this same joke – popular songs stitched into a polka medley – since 1984, and it still kills. My two favorite parts of this one: the instantly recognizable synth melody of “Somebody That I Used to Know” rendered on squelchy muted trumpets, and the Jerry Lewis joke that jumps out of nowhere in the “Gangnam Style” section.
Which brings us to the originals, which are all wonderful. My favorite is “Mission Statement” – the music is in the style of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, but the lyrics are entirely corporate-speak. “At the end of the day we must monetize our assets, can you visualize a value-added experience?” It’s a tremendous smackdown to the hippies who became the establishment, handled in such a subtle way that those hippies would probably sing along.
I’m also a fan of “Lame Claim to Fame,” a style parody of (would you believe) Southern Culture on the Skids, and of “My Own Eyes,” a Foo Fighters homage about experiencing some really funny horrors. “Sports Song” should be sung at every sporting event from now on (“We’re great, and you suck!”). I enjoyed “First World Problems,” done in the style of the Pixies (with Amanda Palmer doing her best Kim Deal), but I did feel like Al was co-opting a joke, something he rarely does.
But all is forgiven when you get to closer “Jackson Park Express.” It’s a nine-minute Cat Stevens-style emotional story-song all about two people who sit across from one another on a bus and never speak. It is absolutely brilliant. It’s musically intricate, like all of Yankovic’s extended pieces, and the lyrics are stunningly good. A few samples:
“I gave her a penetrating stare, which could only mean, ‘You are my answer, my answer to everything, which is why I’ll probably do very poorly on the written part of my driver’s test…’”
“I couldn’t hold back my feelings, I gave her a look that said, ‘I would make any sacrifice for your love… goat, chicken, whatever…’”
“I’d like to rip you wide open and French kiss every single one of your internal organs, I’d like to remove all your skin and wear your skin over my own skin, but not in a creepy way…”
“And then the bus stopped at 53rd Street, and she got up suddenly. ‘Where are you going,’ pleaded my eyes. ‘Baby, don’t you do this to me. Think of the beautiful children we could have someday, we could school them at home, raise them up the right way and protect them from the evils of the world, like trigonometry and prime numbers…’”
Really, I could go on and on. “Jackson Park Express” is another classic, like “Albuquerque” and “Genius in France,” and it caps another in a long line of great records from “Weird Al” Yankovic. If this actually is his last one, it’ll be a shame – while I’m sure he will keep releasing songs online, there’s nothing quite like a Weird Al record. For more than 30 years, this extraordinary student of popular culture has been offering a master class in parody and humor while remaining a stone cold musical genius. He’s been making me laugh for most of my life, and I hope he never stops. Mandatory Fun should be mandatory, and is most definitely fun.
See you in line Tuesday morning.