Friday, September 17, 2010

Funny is as Funny Does

The human brain is spectacularly adept at recognizing patterns. In fact, this innate human trait – the ability to construct silver strings of connection between otherwise disparate objects – is the very cornerstone of the Radio Free Hipster podcast.

When I hear a song my first instinct is to relate it to another, and to cross-reference that in my internal catalog. I then further build this rapidly-growing list by relating more tracks or artists with similar styles, tempos or thematic content. It's more than a little crazy, sure, but it's what I do.

Therefore I was anything but surprised when a pair of albums to recently fall into my possession became inextricably linked. What was a little unexpected was that the element that bound these two was little more than a firm focus on humor.

Insane Ian & the MusicIANs – The Last Arcade

Insane Ian isn't exactly the most well known act in the Funny Music community, but he's quickly become a personal favorite. Like a lot of his fellow Dementia musicians, Ian often constructs elaborate parody tracks (a la Weird Al), and it's a penchant that's served him well.

The Last Arcade, his latest full-length, relies on the hook-heavy nature of tracks lampooning everyone from The Beatles (opener "House") to the Black Eyed Peas ("Autotune") to catch the attention of the listener, but it's often his unique originals that prove most satisfying. Sure "Use Some Money" (a Kings of Leon take-off) and Barenaked Ladies-inspired "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" are perfect sarcastic-pop nuggets, but "Marry'd Life," Ian's own hilariously soulful meditation on modern coupling, shows an even higher level of artistry.

Still, both the parodies and the originals manage to happily co-exist on The Last Arcade. Old favorites like "DiG DuG" sound completely at home in close proximity to joints like "Our Love Song" – a selection that is, perhaps, the most brutally honest romantic ballad of all time.

But that's certainly not to say the album doesn't have issues. A few of the more punk rock numbers (specifically "Talk to Mr. Ed" and "24") overdo the stylistic trait of muddying up the mix, and a measure of the album's core tracks, those focused on the titular topic of games and gaming, fail to completely gel. "Achievement Unlocked" is an early selection that, while humorous, suffers because of a sloppy verse structure, and Super Smash Bros ode "MvL" reminds us that Ian's a better vocalist than rapper.

Speaking of Insane Ian's vocal stylings, The Last Arcade sees him pull off a solid performance throughout with some really nice harmonies scattered here and there. Though his timbre isn't always pitch-perfect his voice is warm, unique and instantly recognizable. More importantly, anything that Ian may lack in his singing is more than made up for by his writing, and even the tracks that flounder and flop (like "Superstitious") manage to work in abundant quotable lines.

The same can be said for the albums instrumental backing. From simple beats to sharp guitar work, Ian and his studio team do a great job of bringing these tunes to life. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the My Chemical Romance-inspired title track, which stands out as one of Ian's most ambitious efforts as well as one of his best.

All things considered, The Last Arcade is a competently performed and incredibly well written album. While not all the songs are total earworms, the vast majority should appeal to anyone with a healthy sense of humor and a love for smartass pop-rock.

Even if the FuMP scene isn't normally your thing, I urge you to at least give Insane Ian a try. He's obviously a cat who takes his music seriously, but isn't above being wonderfully weird for its own sake. It's hard for me not to support an artist like that.

Illbotz – Ringtones for Rotary Phones

While the aforementioned Insane Ian disc is brand-spanking new, Illbotz's Ringtones for Rotary Phones actually dropped way the hell back in 2007.And yet the album holds up well. Casting themselves firmly in the comedy rap vein, it kicks off with a legitimately amusing skit in which Stevie D receives a fax from Nas informing him that hip-hop is dead. The Illbotz solution? Buy a bread machine.

Yeah, it’s that kind of album.

From there the guys take us on a musical journey from distinctly old school hip-hop to contemporarily-colored radio rap – with brief detours into styles as contrasting as guitar pop, white-boy funk and pub rock. It succeeds in this odd musical experiment by relying on two unifying elements: well-metered verses and a wholly off-kilter sense of humor, both of which are firmly intertwined throughout some great songs and totally enjoyable interludes.

In the first musical track alone ("Clap Your Hands and Stuff"), rappers Stevie D and Big Perm manage to channel Sugarhill Gang, Glenn Quagmire and Zoolander into a proper comedy rap explosion. This continues through classically slanted hip-hop jams like "Gyeah" and "Doo Doo Def," both of which skew heavily toward the Biz Markie school of absurdist rhyming.

Hitting all the customary themes of the truly refined artist such as fucking ("The Opposite of Abstinence," "Naughty Party") and drinking ("Me and You and a PBR," "The Pub That Had No Gin"), Ringtones for Rotary Phones is genuinely fierce throughout its first half. Although, admittedly, throwing in an unexpected curve like "Here Comes the Predator," a Replacements parody about a certain 1987 sci-fi action flick, is an easy way to woo me as a reviewer.

Sadly, the album falters a bit around the half-way mark. "Transform" suffers from weak production and an inelegant beat, "Unclean Jellybean" seems far too repetitive, "Gettin' Cocaine for Papa Smurf" fails to live up to its epic title and "My Favorite Things" (a rap parody of the Sound of Music classic) is a far better idea on paper than on wax. Luckily the crew manages to right shit in the waning moments.

Their acoustic-backed tribute to the late Ol' Dirty Bastard is positively inspired, and the album's closing couplet remind us that Illbotz have more to offer than their distinctive humor. No sooner does the "Ghostface Got Fish" skit present Perm's outspoken opinion concerning backpack rap than Stevie seemingly defends the same underground aesthetic (over the Pet Shop Boys "Domino Dancing," if you can fuckin' believe it!)

Already I've begun to see Illbotz much in the same way I see Seattle duo Metaforce or art-rock-rappers Zombies! Organize!! – as a group that I probably enjoy far more than the rest of you. And that's okay. All I can do here is offer my own opinion, and in that opinion Ringtones for Rotary Phones is humorous rap at its finest. I can forgive a few bum tracks when paired with some top-shelf material, and anyone who's still willing and able to keep hip-hop loose, funny and patently disrespectful in the modern context of holier-than-though MCs is aces in my book.

Oh, and as a bonus, Ringtones for Rotary Phones also contains a hidden cover of The Outfield's "Your Love."

Yeah, it’s that kind of album.

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