There is a special hell for those who analyse comedy as if it added anything to the joke, but with musical comedy I think I’ll risk it – there’s a few factors playing about: the lyrical (the puns and incongruous rhymes), the musical (parody and allusion, timing), the characters (the narrator’s voice, usually the butt of the tale) and then the visual (Tim Minchin’s stare, Bill Bailey’s hair, Jemaine’s pout) which this and their debut – effectively just soundtrack albums – obviously can’t convey.
The Conchords have buckets of each element, but the audio-only version isn’t the place to start. (For those of you not yet hooked to the series, in it the songs act to breakup the fantastic deadpan tension that the awful protagonists generate just by being themselves, and without the visual cues the songs were written to, some of the songs fall short.)
Anyway, it opens incredibly well – the note-perfect “Hurt Feelings” is as great as the first album’s “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros” each takes thug-rap and points it in a wonderfully inappropriate direction, a spot-on back-and-forth flow about being a sensitive gangsta.
Then there’s “Fashion Is Danger”’s callouts to Thatcher and Reagan. Holla, girl.
The second series and its songs have been accused of unoriginality, which is something of a dense accusation to make of any form of parody. The set is perhaps overladen with cheap RnB or hiphop send-ups – are there any easier targets in music than the Black Eyed Peas? It’s also not hard to see that they have narrowed, going from their earlier encapsulation of whole styles and genres to more straight-up Weird Al spoofs of specific songs – “You Don’t Have To Be A Prostitute” from the Police’s “Roxanne”, “Sugalumps” from the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps”, “We Both In Love With A Sexy Lady” from the R Kelly/Usher duet “Same Girl” and the Dark 80s Bowie mash-up of “Fashion Is Danger.”
The quasi-covers aren’t bad songs in any sense – “Sugalumps” in fact gets transcendent when it moves through a Fresh Prince bridge into a fantastic Motown movement – but they are lazier, closer to novelty pieces. And we relisten to musical comedy – if at all – when it manages to get beyond novelty and into tiny universal truths, here best represented by a rare reprieve from the hard backbeat, “Rambling Through the Avenues of Time”:
‘Yes, the girl I described, she’s as real as the wind,
It’s true I saw her today,
The other details are inventions
Because I prefer her that way.’
…and the glorious choir of Jemaine’s exes, “Carol Brown.”
Each of the duo has an incredible voice, but the loveably-awful characters they don bind them, flatten them down; the musical part of the gag seems to rely on their being a bit amateurish. This is most clear on the numbers which flop in the other areas – particularly “Demon Woman”, Slavic shanty “Petrov, Yelyena And Me”, the limp “Friends” and even the title track.
They are still best-in-class – especially if we take, say, the turgid Lonely Planet in comparison – and still funny at their worst. But unless you’re really jonesing for a portable fix of digibongo acapella-rap-funk, you should just spend the extra £5/$10 or so and get the second series boxset; the magical pokerfaced awkwardness of that renders even the thin moments on this admirable.
© Gavin Leech