Flight of the Conchords
There's a valid question lurking at the heart of this release, and it's just begging to be asked: what is it? Is it an album in its own right? A collection? A soundtrack to the television program? Well, it's all of those things...which is part of the problem. Oh, okay...it's the entire problem, because if you disregard its severe lack of cohesiveness and direction, it's everything you hoped it'd be: an almost-perfect mix of great comedy and excellent musicianship.
The worst thing anyone can say about the album is that you'll already know whether or not you like it before you even listen to it. There aren't any new songs here at all (the mysterious Au Revoir track that closes out the album is really just a 22-second coda to Foux du Fafa, and if it wasn't listed you wouldn't even realize it was there).
Well, actually, a few other negatives occur to me right now, so bear with me as I roll through them, keeping in mind (always keeping in mind) that I recommend this album, and I'm only bothering to highlight these things because I imagine that fans of Flight of the Conchords will buy this no matter what I say, and non-fans would have no reason to buy it anyway.
But wait! Wouldn't non-fans like to hear this excellent release? Shouldn't it initiate them into the world of the Conchords and make them realize what they've been missing for so long? Well, no. As good as the album is, this really isn't the way to expose somebody new to the band.
Why? Well...I hate to say it, but the versions presented here really do represent the "worst of both worlds" for potential new fans. These versions of the songs are (at least sort of--more on this later) the reworked, fully-orchestrated versions you've heard in the HBO series. These worked so well on the show because they were supported by that week's plot, by excellent physical performances during the song, and by some truly brilliant music-video pastiche. To listen to these versions without the accompanying visuals (and often without the accompanying narrative, however loosely they may be connected) you aren't getting the complete experience. The fully-orchestrated versions are less funny on their own. That's just the nature of the recording, and I'm sure the Conchords themselves realize this.
(Worth mentioning, probably, is the fact that these more fleshed-out versions of the songs sort of disguise the excellent musicianship of the duo. After all, anyone can sound good under a mountain of studio musicians and trickery--but when it's just the boys and their guitars they have nowhere to hide, and they reveal themselves as masters of many, varied genres. A shame to almost lose that here, but there you go.)
For a newcomer, it's best to either hear the live versions (with audience interaction and great banter) or watch the television show. Both different experiences, yes, but both excellent introductions. With this CD you neither get the appropriate context nor the energy of live performance. Does this make the album less enjoyable? Well, that's debateable. It doesn't bother me, but it does decide for me that I won't be using this to turn any new fans onto the Conchords.
Speaking of context, a definite issue with this release is how context-free it manages to be. It's a pretty manic assortment of songs, as you probably already know, and what it manages to enforce is how important it was that the songs in the show were used so sparingly and never back to back. Even their live shows feature large amounts of banter and setup, and it's very important for allowing the audience a chance to "reset" after a certain musical style and before the next. The album hits you from too many different directions without allowing any real time to reflect. A limitation of the medium? Sure. But the fact of the matter is that the songs are all grouped together too closely to really achieve anything more than the sum of their parts.
Another issue is definitely going to be track selection, especially when the album clocks in at a mere 42 minutes or so. There was plenty of room to include all of the cuts from the television show, and probably a re-recorded rarity or two. Instead we get fourteen songs, which is nearly all of them--but not all. I'm Not Crying and If You're Into It appear on the Distant Future EP, so that's a must-buy if you're a fan, as those songs are as good as any other. And apparently Bret You've Got it Going On was an iTunes exclusive. But a few songs--Albi the Racist Dragon, Frodo, Pencils in the Wind and Song for Sally--appear to have been neglected entirely. Which is a shame, because the latter two are brilliant songs that I think would work much better audio-only than most of the cuts that did make the album. Here's hoping they turn up on a followup.
So far it sounds as though I'm treating this album like a soundtrack, right? Well...maybe I am. And it almost is. But it isn't...because, if you pay attention, you'll notice that these recordings are not identical to the ones you've heard on HBO. They're very, very, very close, but they are different. In a way this is a good thing--after all, it means they didn't just slap down the existing audio recorded for the show and call it a day. But, on the other hand, the songs seem to lose more from the re-recording than they gain. Case in point: a few excised jokes from Business Time, including my two favorite lines from the song!
For the most part the re-record seems to have been used to touch up instrumentation a bit or in a few cases to alter the inflection on the vocals (Leggy Blonde and A Kiss is Not a Contract are probably the most obvious examples), but, as mentioned above, you do end up losing a joke or two in the process. I understand (and appreciate) the desire to craft something new, but there isn't enough newness to justify the omissions.
One thing I would have liked to have seen--considering they already went through the trouble of a re-record--would have been a few extended versions of certain songs, like Foux du Fafa or Boom that would have benefitted from an extended outro. Or maybe another verse or two to flesh out A Kiss is Not a Contract, which all of a sudden seems criminally short when removed from the context of its episode. In other words it's a lovely song that really needs some more room to breathe if it's going to survive on its own.
The fact of the matter is, though, that this album is loaded with brilliant songs, many of which (Inner City Pressure, Leggy Blonde) could easily have been hits for other, less-discriminating artists with a few minor lyrical changes, and others that will make you laugh every single time (Mutha'uckas, The Most Beautiful Girl [In the Room]), though probably at different lines and rhymes each time you listen.
You already know whether or not you're interested in buying this album so, by all means, follow yout gut. But if you're new to the Conchords and you're interested in learning more about them, check out some live perfomances on YouTube, and definitely grab yourself a copy of their television show on DVD. You won't be disappointed, and you'll probably end up with a quiet little crush on Rhys Darby.
If the album suffers from anything, it's that it leaves you with that same feeling you got when you burned all of your absolute favorite songs to one CD, then listened to it, and couldn't understand why it wasn't your new favorite album. There's just something preventing that overall cohesiveness. But the songs all work just fine during the course of their own runtime--and that's more than enough to justify the purchase.
Oh, you get a nice little poster with it, too. It's a lot larger than the "posters" that usually come with CDs. Somewhere out there someone is interested in that.