Wednesday, September 20, 2006

“Weird Al” Yankovic – Straight Outta Lynwood
CD Review by Sombrero Grande

I can only imagine that the warm, cozy feeling I get inside whenever I hear a new song by “Weird Al” Yankovic is comparable to how an elderly person feels when he or she opens up the Funnies section of the newspaper and sees Garfield eating lasagna or Little Billy leaving a dotted line trail behind in Family Circus. I have fond memories growing up listening to Yankovic poking fun at the most popular musicians of the eighties and nineties and it just makes me feel warm and fuzzy to know that Al is still out there, continuing in his mischievous adventures through the ever-dynamic world of popular music. However, unlike Garfield or The Family Circus, whenever Al pops on the scene he’s got original, satirical and often wildly funny material to impart.

The good news for me and every other Al fan out there is that he’s got a brand new album arriving in stores September 26th. The really good news is that a listen to Straight Outta Lynwood proves it’s not only well worth the three-year wait since Poodle Hat but that it can hold its own among Al’s greatest albums.

Straight Outta Lynwood opens with “White and Nerdy,” the album’s headline parody of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’.” Here the singer laments his inability to “roll with the gangstas” because he’s just too, well, white and nerdy. Al conjures up not just the stereotypical images of nerds, such as the wearing of pocket protectors and playing Dungeons and Dragons, but mixes in a healthy dose of up-to-the-moment references like MySpace, Segways and Wikipedia with a lightning-fast, gotta-listen-to-it-more-than-once-to-catch-everything delivery that could make an auctioneer or that guy from the old Micro Machines commercials jealous.

The album’s next track is Al’s first original song on Straight Outta Lynwood and his second style parody of The Beach Boys (the first being his song “Trigger Happy” on 1992's Off the Deep End), entitled “Pancreas.” “Pancreas” seems to take particular aim at mimicking the sound of “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” as it tells of the singer’s uncanny affection for said bodily organ. Though my initial reaction to the song was that it was tepid at best, its melodies and lyrics have grown on me with repeat listens. One thing’s certain, this song’s sure to get a lot of play in the classrooms of “cool” middle school science teachers.

Up next is a parody of Green Day’s “American Idiot” redubbed “Canadian Idiot.” Here Yankovic pokes some friendly fun at America’s northern neighbors, pulling out well-worn stereotypes about hockey, distinct pronunciation and overt politeness. This reliance on familiar, often-trod-upon material leaves “Canadian Idiot” the weakest parody on the album, but it’s still a pretty good track.

“I’ll Sue Ya” is a style parody of Rage Against the Machine that pokes fun at the knee-jerk reaction of modern America to blame big corporations for the stupid mistakes of consumers and the ludicrous legal action that sometimes follows. Suing a fast food conglomerate for a patron’s obesity is mentioned alongside fictitious yet equally mind-boggling situations that cause rational members of society to roll their eyes in disbelief.

“Polkarama” is Straight Outta Lynwood’s requisite polka medley. In his polka medleys, Yankovic takes a “grab bag” approach to assembling bits and pieces of popular songs and strings them together as if part of one, long polka song. The effect of this is that it takes the songs’ lyrics out of context to point out the often sheer ludicrousness or perplexing randomness of their meanings. We tend to unquestioningly accept lyrics like, “somebody told me that you had a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend that I had in February of last year,” when they’re wrapped in a catchy tune we numbly absorb, but when put to a jokey, hokey polka beat it becomes easy to question just how these songs ever managed to grab hold. Though the segues between the song fragments assembled in “Polkarama” are often less than smooth, it makes it all worthwhile to hear lyrics from 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” most humorously out-of-place matched with an eager accordion and “oom-pah band”-style background vocals.

“Virus Alert” is the first song on Straight Outta Lynwood that caused me to laugh out loud multiple times upon first listen and marks the beginning of the album’s upward swing to greatness. An original song, it parodies the paranoia behind e-mail forwards that warn of other e-mail forwards that may contain viruses as Al takes particular delight in stringing together wonderfully absurd non sequiturs.

“Confessions Part III” is a hilarious parody of Usher’s “Confessions Part II” where Al comes up with yet more things for the singer to confess to his woman. Consider it a sequel to Usher’s “Confessions” and “Confessions Part II” only in the same way that Repossessed is a sequel to The Exorcist. The idea for this parody had me chuckling thinking of what sort of “confessions” Weird Al would have, and the execution of the song really delivers. Any pomposity in “Confessions Part II” is aptly shot to hell here.

The album’s one big disappointment and jarring hiccup is “Weasel Stomping Day,” a holiday carol that ends up sounding suspiciously a lot like the “Whacking Day” episode of The Simpsons. In explaining the made-up, abusive holiday celebration, Al sings sarcastically, “It’s tradition so that makes it okay.” It might have been original over a decade ago, but now I just can’t help but recall the South Park quote: “Simpsons did it! Simpsons did it!” Also, I wouldn’t have expected a vegan to apparently take so much delight in creating disturbing “weasel-crunching” sounds. Fortunately the song is rather short and, thanks to the marvels of CD technology, can be easily skipped.

Up next is “Close But No Cigar,” a style parody of the band Cake, specifically their song “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” that’s in the running for my favorite track on the album. It’s a fantastic, toe-tapping song with witty lyrics that describe the singer’s trouble with relationships; specifically that he continually finds tiny imperfections in potential soul mates and breaks up with them over trivial things like “she actually owns a copy of Joe Dirt on DVD” (though I have to admit, being a Masked Movie Snob, I don’t think I could overlook that one either).

Another stellar song is Weird Al’s parody of Taylor Hicks’ “Do I Make You Proud,” titled “Do I Creep You Out.” Here the American Idol winner’s emotional pop ballad gets skewered with Al’s, well, creepy take on an unrequited love song. The soulful singing and earnest melody serve as glorious counterpoint to frightening and funny lyrics as the singer professes his love and then goes on to describe his stalker behavior. This is another track that could very well emerge as my favorite on the album, but my only complaint is that it’s just too short. Just as the song is really getting into full swing, it ends. Now, I expected to blame this, well, shortcoming on Hicks’ original song, but, according to the iTunes Music Store, “Do I Make You Proud” clocks in at over four minutes while “Do I Creep You Out” doesn’t even last three. What happened, Al?

The next song, “Trapped in the Drive Thru,” is a hilarious send-up of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.” Clocking in at nearly eleven minutes in length, this musical epic details (down to the most minute of details) a bickering couple’s trials and tribulations trying to pick up something for dinner. Here, again, a self-important musical concoction gets knocked down a few pegs thanks to Al’s fantastic and funny writing.

The final song on the album is an original track and the record’s first single, “Don’t Download This Song.” Here Al proves that, regardless of lyrics, he can pen some really great music. “Don’t Download This Song” is a very catchy take-off on “We Are the World” style songs where a group of artists unite to sing about a worthy cause; in this case, it’s encouraging listeners to give up illegally downloading music over the Internet and buy the artists’ CDs instead. It’s a very funny idea for a style parody, and the music Al’s written is wonderful, but it’s the lyrics that don’t quite seem to hit the mark. Though the song, obviously, wants to dissuade listeners from breaking the law to obtain music, many of the lyrics undermine this message to the point where I have to wonder exactly what message Al’s really trying to convey here. Is the song tongue-in-cheek but with an earnest anti-download message, or is Al ridiculing the overblown reaction of record companies (with “It doesn’t matter if you’re a grandma or a seven-year-old girl, they’ll treat you like the evil, hard-bitten criminal scum you are,”) and monetary concerns of already wealthy artists (“How else can I afford another solid-gold Humvee and diamond-covered swimming pools--these things don’t grow on trees”).

Since “Don’t Download This Song” is meant to parody celebrity-gathering charity songs, I was a little disappointed at first that every “singer” sounds just like Weird Al. Al’s shown time and time again that he can alter his voice to sound very similar to many other singers, so I’m a little perplexed as to why he didn’t try to imitate famous voices or singing styles to give the song even more of that “We Are the World” flair. The song ends up sounding as if it had been recorded by the army of Al clones in his “The Saga Begins” music video, but that’s just a minor quibble.

Ironically, “Don’t Download This Song” is actually being made available to download for FREE (legally!) from Weird Al’s website to promote Straight Outta Lynwood. I suggest you check it out.

Speaking of free songs available for legal download, while you’re at Al’s official web site, don’t miss the opportunity to download a song that ISN’T on the album as well, a song that was cut so last-minute that it caused the album’s release to be postponed several months. It’s a parody of James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” called “You’re Pitiful” and it’s too bad the track didn’t make it onto the album as it’s another brilliant, funny parody that would have been among good neighbors on Straight Outta Lynwood. Apparently Blunt was fine with Al’s song but Blunt’s record company (Atlantic Records) said no to its inclusion on the album, so Al released it on the Internet for free instead.

It makes me wonder how many fantastic parodies we’ve been denied over the years because someone simply told Al they’d prefer if he didn’t release them. If Al had talked with Coolio directly before recording “Amish Paradise,” we’d never have gotten that fantastic track as Coolio later protested his record company never told him of Al’s intentions. Yankovic’s live performances (which are experiences not to be missed) that I’ve seen have included brief verses of parodies of Alanis Morissette and Celine Dion songs that I’d never heard elsewhere, so I have to wonder if these too are aborted tracks that didn’t make the cut somewhere along the way. In that case we should feel very fortunate that “You’re Pitiful” saw the light of day, especially for free.

As if being a solid album unto itself wasn’t enough, Straight Outta Lynwood offers up bonus DVD content to boot. For starters, every song is available in stereo, a 5.1 surround mix and karaoke so you can try to match Al’s pace singing “White and Nerdy.” There are also “music videos” for six tracks (“Don’t Download This Song,” “I’ll Sue Ya,” “Weasel Stomping Day,” “Close But No Cigar,” “Pancreas,” and “Virus Alert”), but don’t go in expecting the usual, hilarious videos Al’s known for; these are all animations done by other folks and none really impressed me. In fact, the video for “I’ll Sue Ya” is the only one that didn’t leave me outright disappointed. Let Al stick to making his own videos, folks.

Lastly there’s an interesting nine-minute behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD about recording the album’s original tracks where the viewer gets to see just how much work goes into crafting each song musically.

Along with Off the Deep End and In 3-D, Straight Outta Lynwood is one of Weird Al’s most solid albums. Though it’s not likely to see a crossover single hit like “Eat It,” “Smells Like Nirvana” or “Amish Paradise,” this is definitely an album worth checking out. The genius apparent in songs like “Confessions Part III,” “Virus Alert,” “Do I Creep You Out” and “Trapped in the Drive Thru” more than make up for a couple lackluster tracks like “Pancreas” and “Weasel Stomping Day.” Die-hard Weird Al fans are sure to snap this album up immediately, but Straight Outta Lynnwood is definitely worth a buy from casual fans as well or anyone who considers themselves up on today’s popular music scene.


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