This clearly underscores the problem with comedy music, or rather the perception of comedy music; it's easy to write off a humorous artist as insincere or as the producer of a pale reflection of another more legitimate form simply because his output is comical in nature. Phrases like "parody artist" and "musical comedy" have accordingly become thinly-veiled slights, often insinuating that the act in question is somehow less important or less legitimate than his more straight-laced peers.
But what about when the music isn't merely a conduit for the humor? What about creators who instead use comedy to truly express themselves musically?
From the classic filk circles of old to the Dr. Demento show to the internet's prolific Funny Music Project, silliness and sarcasm have always had an apparent, unapologetic place in the music of nerd culture. With the advent of YouTube and the glut of social media and sharing options afforded to today's musicians, what may have once been a standalone novelty track success story has morphed into endless opportunities to shock, amaze and delight.
Still, the very act of billing oneself as a musical comedy act can provoke derision from the countless haters in the scene and beyond. Yet this doesn't stop everyone from defiantly exploring the power of lyrical humor.
My first exposure to Nashville's Nuclear Bubble Wrap was an early, demo-y version of their comedy Wrock track "Draining the Lizard on a Dead Gay Wizard," and I was...unimpressed. It was juvenile and trebly and repetitive, but just like other humorous punk rock outfits, the kings of which were certainly the late, great Dead Milkmen, Nuclear Bubble Wrap manages to turn those same liabilities into strengths.
Their latest release, Exploding Head Syndrome, is all about sharp guitars, arrested sexuality and lyrics that walk the fine line between ridiculous and inspired. And what makes it work is the band's unique self-awareness. Nuclear Bubble Wrap isn't talking about the plight of indigenous peoples of the piss-poor state of the global economy. They are instead writing puns about Pokémon names and making sweet musical love to poultry.
While the comedy is often lowbrow, the songwriting itself is generally clever and the instrumentation eclectic and satisfying. The album kicks off with "Burning Ambitions," a hard rocking joint about pyromania, before switching immediately to the off-kilter folk-punk that is the delightfully dirty "Inyourendo." The guys exercise their parody muscles early on with "Food Belongs in Me" featuring a great guest spot from Johnna Day, but follow-up original "Raichu a Song" stands out as the most geek-friendly of the album's offerings.
The key-heavy "Captain Abduction" likewise channels broader popular culture – casting the alien abduction phenomenon as a Fallout Boy number – into a proper pop rock anthem that could easily be mistaken for the work of a more vanilla indie outfit, like the one that inspired it, if not for its laughable lyrical slant. The laidback "Birdfucker," itself a Neil Cicierega cover, scores points for production and melody (not to mention its pure conceptual depravity), but gets lost among the album's more enjoyable fare like TMBG cover "I Never Go to Work" and the surreal indie pop of "Sharktopus."
"Avada Kedavra" is a sharp mash-up of Potterdom and Disney fluff that succeeds more thanks to clever instrumentation than its hammy Borsht Belt lyrical delivery, but it does play well off the mock arena rock of Green Day send-up "Know Your Power Chords." The album's final movement begins with "Lesbian," another great track that falters because the core joke isn't quite as strong as the song deserves. "Holes in the Fort" likewise stops just short of Jonathan Richman-level humor-punk.
"Words Like Arsenic (Thyne Eyes Befell the Celestial Carnival)" continues this unfortunate trend, sounding like a dark cabaret piece that never quite gels despite fantastic use of accordion and acoustic guitar. This, of course, makes way for the aforementioned "Draining the Lizard," a song that certainly sounds like a more polished version of the original track that put me off the band to begin with.
But just as I begin to give up hope on the latter moments of Exploding Head Syndrome, closer "In Space No One Can Hear You Scream" comes along with the same blend of funny writing and true musical chops that the band exhibited earlier. A perfect juxtaposition of twee pop and blues, of strong, upbeat melodies and humorous hopelessness, it's a truly solid ender.
Exploding Head Syndrome starts off strong, but it loses much of its steam in its waning act. Still, it's an excellent example of snarky alterna-rock that heaps humor on top of already skillful writing. Also, at 15 tracks Jace and the boys hit far more than they miss, and that alone says a lot.
If Nuclear Bubble Wrap puts you in mind of punk's classic pranksters, from the Milkmen to the Minutemen, then surely Virginia's Illbotz are their spiritual kin from just the other side of the rock 'n' roll dividing line. Known for mining hip-hop's oft-forgotten comical past, the boys go so far as to show their old school roots in the very title of their latest LP. Pudding is Delicious, itself a classic LL Cool J reference, further takes strides to keep funny rap alive.
It's "Fair Eastside" intro is a soulful slice of surreality that segues nicely into the bombast of "Illbotz Rock the Spot and Go Crazy," a veritable party jam already unleashed on an unsuspecting word as part of the crew's All Bot and a Bag of Chips collection. Still, as weird as it is it can't hold a candle to the eastern funk-rap of "Throw Me That Eggroll." While not exactly an example of Poe Mack's most groundbreaking production, it's a solid banger to help kick the album off in style.
"Dinosaur, Dinosaur" on the other hand shows both Stevie D and Poe at their best on a dirty club track that's almost too ridiculous to be believed. The "What's That All a Bot?" skit doesn't exactly stand up to many of their best segues, but it does pave the way for the stellar "Bot Life." "Stevie D's iPod" brings back the Illbotz charm in spades, and partners perfectly with "Your iPod Sucks," a song which I've already fervently praised. The one-two punch of "True Love and a Fat Boys Record" and silly soul number "Baby Bot" also keep the dream alive by showcasing the crew at its finest. (Though these too were included on the band's previous career retrospective.)
Stevie and the boys switch shit up with 50s-style pop "Zombie Girl," and then bring things back to the 80s with "The Power Glove (Lucas' Theme)." The "Scenester Joke" skit is mercifully short and it doesn't do much to setup the fierce sex rhymes of "Can I Put it on a Sandwich?," but it's certainly no stranger than spontaneous hardcore punk number "Stupid Lazy Eye (Get Off the Couch)." The punk rock-style lingers through both "Enter Marshall" and "Marshall (the Friendliest Punk in Town)," which are rather middle-of-the-road tracks that mostly serve to add a new character Illbotz mythos. They also lead us to the only real disappointment of the album "Perm's Poem," a great gag from the group's co-MC that lingers entirely too long.
"Give a Little Love," a song previously shared on the first Nerdcore Now comp, is another genuine standout that helps wind the album down, but the down-home gospel of "Jesus Gave Me Water (But What I Wanted Was a PBR)" surely succeeds as both the biggest surprise and the strongest joke on the entire album. It showcases the wholly bizarre chemistry between Stevie D, Big Perm, DJ Samson and Poe Mack by taking them as far away from their core hip-hop element as imaginable. "Perm's Got Bad Breath" gets the giggles, but seems a tad superfluous save to setup the excellent "Stank Ass Rappas," and Poe and Stevie again shine on closer "My Crown," which gives the producer a rare chance to rhyme on an Illbotz joint.
Of course an Illbotz album never ends without a hidden track, and this time around you get two-for-one. The first is a goofy New Age joint about 2012 that gets points for skillfully working in many of the album's recurring comedy motifs (specifically ODB and the all-important Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts.) But of course the real knee-slapper is the impromptu cover of Billy Joel's "For the Longest Time." It finishes up the boys' best album to date, not to mention one of my new personal faves, in true Illbotz style.
With notable exceptions like The Lonely Island, Tenacious D, Flight of the Conchords and, of course, the indubitable Weird Al, the idea of a successful, respected purveyor of comedy music is all but unheard of. At least in the mainstream.
But out on the periphery, on an internet where memes reproduce like tribbles and a funny tune doesn't need a the love of some shitty drive-time DJ to make it a stick, countless acts toil away stacking silly puns and bawdy one-liners atop skillfully crafted instrumentals. And as inspiring as it is to think of artists combining the strengths of their twin passions of music and comedy in an indifferent world, it's even more so when you realize that, rather than apathetic, much of the surrounding musical landscape is downright hostile.
But the true funnyman doesn't care if you're too cool to get the joke, nor does he worry that his efforts will be branded as insincere. Instead he plies his craft and makes the music he wants to hear without fretting over whether his efforts will merely land him in the novelty bin.