“New Zealand’s former fourth-most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a cappella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo” jump from screen back to record with their hilarious and catchy self-titled LP. Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie adopt and parody numerous styles in a self-deprecating, clueless manner that could only come from ‘Australia’s Canada’. While the lyrics are, unsurprisingly, stronger than the music, Flight of the Conchords have expanded and strengthened their musical ability, and the funny holds up over multiple listens.
Begun as ‘flatmates’ at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, Flight of the Conchords combined coffee house folk guitar with comedic banter and outsized, quickly deflated egos. Clement and McKenzie played at comedy festivals before getting their own, mostly improvised, BBC2 Radio series in 2005. They came over to the States the following year at South by Southwest (QRO Festival Guide), signing to Seattle’s Sub Pop and releasing The Distant Future EP in last year. But it was their self-titled HBO series (QRO’s Indie on Late Night TV) last summer that really brought them to American audiences (though Future did win the Grammy for Best Comedic Album – take that, George Lopez!), chronicling McKenzie and Clement as they attempted to make it in New York, with help from manager/New Zealand cultural attaché Murray (Rhys Darby, from the BBC2 Radio series) and their single fan, Mel (Kristen Schaal, The Daily Show). The absurdist series worked their songs into the plot, or just built the plot around them. And now some of the best have been compiled in Flight of the Conchords.
Instead of just relying on one joke to carry them through a song, or really just putting a stand-up act to music, like other musical humorists, Flight of the Conchords utilizes the duo’s combination of high-brain ignorance and matter-of-fact common sense to puncture whatever they take on – especially themselves. This most frequently comes out in a low-key mixture of rap and R&B, the genres most in need of popping. “Inner City Pressure” is a synth-rap mockingly reminiscent of early hip-hop like “Rapper’s Delight”. Two of the greatest rap nicknames ever are had on “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros”. Gangsta-rap and Caribbean hip-hop get taken on in “Mutha’uckas” and “Boom”, respectively. Meanwhile, silky-smooth R&B come-ons get the best straight face lampooning since The Onion’s Smoove B, on the back-to-back “The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room)” and “Business Time” (both taken from The Distant Future).
But Flight of the Conchords do not limit themselves in their genre choices – or even language, spouting every French term they know on faux French New Wave opener “Foux du Fafa” (before being revealed as being unable to speak French). Eighties self-righteously earnest prog-pop gets its spin on “Think About It”, while high hippie fantasy, complete with lutes and flutes, is mocked on “The Prince of Parties”. Love ballads, meanwhile, get skewered twice, both on “A Kiss Is Not a Contract” and “Leggy Blonde” (which features Murray himself).
The top two tracks, however, have to be “Robots” and “Bowie”. “Robots”, featured live on the EP, is out-right hilarious in its electronic “Mr. Roboto”/‘humans are dead’ banter between Clement and McKenzie. They laud all the accomplishments robots have made since destroying the destructive humans in the late nineties (“There is no more unethical treatment of the elephants” – “Well, there’s no more elephants, so… Still, it’s good”) before McKenzie sees the irony of the situation – prompting Clement to order his destruction. And Flight of the Conchords reach past the heavens to ‘Bowie in space’, giving a perfect mixture of tribute and parody of the Thin White Duke, all the while capturing Bowie’s seventies music sense.
Easy comparisons can be made between Flight of the Conchords (the band, the show) with HBO’s last folk-parody duo, Tenacious D (and “Bowie” does feel like The D’s “Tribute” or “Dio” meets Ziggy Stardust/Major Tom). But whereas Jack Black and Kyle Gass went bombastic in their self-praise and love of metal, Clement and McKenzie employ a deadpan doofishness more akin to the seventies’ folk-parody duo, The Smothers Brothers (albeit without any of The Brothers’ later war-related political edge). Flight of the Conchords’ musical ability has certainly grown since The Distant Future, as their HBO series has allowed them more freedom of instrument (one probably does enjoy the album more if you’ve seen the show, though – but that’s as much because of taste as experience, and fans of the show probably wish there was more Murray). However, it’s the words, the timing, the comic attitude that makes Flight of the Conchords soar so high. Watch out Lord of the Rings, Crowded House, Xena – New Zealand’s got a new top cultural export…