Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Weird Al" Yankovic (1983)

PARODIES: 5 (out of 10). 5 parodies, but only a couple are great. “My Bologna” (The Knack’s “My Sharona”) and “Another One Rides The Bus” (Queen’s “Another Bites The Dust”) got Al his start, but he hadn’t yet developed his band into the note-perfect imitators they would become.

ORIGINALS: 3 (out of 10). “Gotta Boogie” involves trying unsuccessfully to fling a booger off your finger, and it might be the best original here. Ugh.

POLKA MEDLEY: N/A. Al didn’t start doing his signature polka-style medleys of recent hits until his second album.

OVERALL: 4 (out of 10). Two of Al’s key fascinations – TV and food – are already discernible in parodies like the I Love Lucy-referencing “Ricky” (Toni Basil’s “Mickey”) and “I Love Rocky Road” (Joan Jett’s cover of “I Love Rock N Roll”), but most of what made Al such a memorable writer and performer isn’t quite there yet. This first album is so weak, that it’s kind of astonishing the quantum leap he made one year later with the next record.

"Weird Al" Yankovic In 3-D (1984)

PARODIES: 8. Two words: “Eat It.” 5 parodies and almost all of them classics, except for a slightly weak reworking of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” as a song about dreading “The Brady Bunch.” When I first heard this album as a kid, I hadn’t heard the original songs that inspired tracks like “I Lost On Jeopardy” (“Who’s Greg Kihn?”), but now I can appreciate stuff I missed. For example, I like the way Al’s lyrics play on Sting’s original lyrics, in his Police parody “King of Suede,” plus he seems to be paying tribute in the song to old-time song parodist Allen Sherman’s “Ballad of Harry Lewis.”

ORIGINALS: 8. Not all of the originals are as memorable as the 6-minute “Nature Trail To Hell,” describing a gory 3-D slasher film in gleeful detail, but there are no duds. The lyrical references to infomercial king “Mr. Popeil” might fail to connect without checking Wikipedia, but that particular song’s impersonation of the B-52’s is impeccable and introduces Al’s knack for style parodies and not just parody lyrics.

POLKA MEDLEY: 10. The one that introduced the template Al and his band would follow for the next 25 years or so: Take a bunch of rock songs and take the rock out of them, by playing them on accordion, banjo, and other instruments that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Lawrence Welk record. The selections are also quite witty: snippets of classics by The Beatles, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix mingle with oddball moments from Devo, The Clash, and Berlin, whose completely bizarre “Sex (I’m A…)” was introduced to me by this medley.

OVERALL: 9. One of Al’s very best. The main thing that keeps this from being a perfect record – and one of the main hazards of the work that Al does – is the occasional datedness of his pop-culture references.

Dare To Be Stupid (1985)

PARODIES: 7. “Like A Surgeon” (Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”) is the classic, but “Yoda” (The Kinks’ “Lola”) is clever and “I Want A New Duck” (Huey Lewis and The News’ “I Want A New Drug”) is fun even if it’s a bit, well, stupid. (What’s the album title again?) Unfortunately, one of Al’s worst parodies is included; his record label demanded a Cyndi Lauper parody, and he delivered the half-hearted and fairly awful “Girls Just Want To Have Lunch.” (The record label also demanded Al do a straight cover song, so there is the puzzling inclusion of a faithful version of the “George of the Jungle” theme song on the album.)

ORIGINALS: 7. 3 pretty good tunes and 2 stone-cold classics. The Devo-mocking “Dare To Be Stupid” and the doo-wop-style break-up song “One More Minute” are cleverly written and perfectly executed, mixing Al’s penchant for absurdist imagery with obvious love for the styles he’s utilizing and even a few dashes of genuine sentiment.

POLKA MEDLEY: 10. This one focuses solely on hits of the moment, so you have Tina Turner bumping against Hall & Oates, who share the stage with Nena, Kenny Loggins, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and more. Quite a good medley that seems oddly forgotten at this late date.

OVERALL: 7. This feels like mostly a pretty great album, and maybe if someone at the record company had asked for a few more originals along the lines of “One More Minute” instead of trying to wedge in weird touches like the “George of the Jungle” cover, this might have been one of Al’s best.

Polka Party! (1986)

PARODIES: 5. On first listen, I despised this album. On second listen, I’m willing to give it a little more slack. The parodies sort of have a theme this time around: 3 of the 4 parodies are theme songs from then-current movies. “Living With A Hernia” riffs successfully on the James Brown song from Rocky IV, but who gives a shit about the song from Ruthless People – then or now? The non-movie parody, “Addicted To Spuds” (Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love”) is like “I Want A New Duck,” in that it’s fairly dumb but ingratiating in its silliness.

ORIGINALS: 5. “Christmas At Ground Zero” is a giddy exercise in Cold War sick humor set to a Phil Spector-style soundscape, and it’s the clear highlight of the album. The rest of the originals range from forgettable to decent. The Talking Heads style parody “Dog Eat Dog” – though apparently well-liked by other hardcore fans – to me, sounds exactly like the band being mocked without proceeding to do anything interesting with the impersonation.

POLKA MEDLEY: 8. Another solid batch of hits anthologized, with artists ranging from Genesis’s Peter Gabriel to Genesis’s Phil Collins. A little on the short side.

OVERALL: 5. Not quite the utter debacle I thought it was on first listen, this still earns its reputation as Al’s least inspired album.

Even Worse (1988)

PARODIES: 8. You never forget your first and, ladies and gentlemen, this is my first Weird Al album. And what a doozy it is. This album has got “Fat,” which is an undisputed classic – a series of self-inflicted “Yo Mama” jokes both familiar (“When I sit around the house, I really sit around the house”) and new (“When you’re having seconds, I’m having twenty-thirds”), made truly great by another near-perfect replica of the Michael Jackson recording, down to all the Gloved One’s weird little vocal stutters. The other parodies follow a theme, like the parodies on Polka Party! This time, it’s parodies of songs that are hit remakes. “La Bamba” becomes “Lasagna,” complete with Italian stereotypes that went out of date in about 1921, although it’s still pretty funny. (Of course, Weird Al did the same kind of broad ethnic stereotyping a decade later with “Pretty Fly For A Rabbi,” and that’s still pretty funny too.) “Mony Mony” becomes “Alimony” while “I Think We’re Alone Now” becomes “I Think I’m A Clone Now,” which are both topics right up an 8-year-old’s alley – NOT!! (Good tunes, though.) My life-long quibble: sure, Al titles one of his parodies “(This Song’s Just) Six Words Long” (George Harrison’s cover of “Got My Mind Set On You”), but he sings it as “This song is just six words long.” Dammit, Al, WTF!?!

ORIGINALS: 8. It is bizarre listening to this album a couple decades after its heyday, because, boy there are a lot of jokes I didn’t get at the time that suddenly fall into place. “Velvet Elvis” is about buying a picture of The King on velvet at a swap meet, done in the style of The Police – two things for which I had almost no cultural reference in ’88. “You Make Me” is one of Al’s stream-of-consciousness absurdist rambles, done in the style of Oingo Boingo. Now, I think it’s an amazing send-up; then, I wondered why anyone would make a song that sounds like that. The album has 2 of Al’s all-time sick-humor highlights: the undeniably catchy “Melanie,” which sounds a bit like Marshall Crenshaw and details the infatuation of a deluded stalker, and the James Taylor-ish “Good Old Days,” which almost seems like an unintentional comment on Charles Manson’s songwriting career, as the singer details his various psychopathic rampages in the mellowest of folk styles.

POLKA MEDLEY: N/A. This is the only album, besides Al’s debut, to feature no polka… :(

OVERALL: 8. Al bounces back from Polka Party!, freshly inspired and ready to gross out the world. It sure worked on me.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

UHF – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff (1989)

PARODIES: 10. I feel like for some reason, this is going to be a controversial opinion, but here goes… the UHF soundtrack is Weird Al’s best album. Every track is perfect, and I’ve re-listened to this album more than any of the other ones listed here. If what I’ve read on the internet is to be believed, this is also the only Weird Al album that is out-of-print (although the tracks can be downloaded from iTunes and the like). So, you see how I feel like I must be in the minority here, right? Nonetheless, as soon as I hit play and Mark Knopfler’s guitar kicked in on the “Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies*” mash-up (yes, he re-played the guitar part himself), I found myself pumping my fist (yes, literally) and getting ready to settle in with a classic album. While none of the other parodies got much publicity (they aren’t actually in the movie – they’re among the “other stuff”), they are primo Al, turning R.E.M.’s “Stand” into “Spam” (the canned meat, not junk email – this was ’89), turning Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” into a TV-obsessed gem about that Gilligan’s “Isle Thing,” and changing one word in the title of a Fine Young Cannibals’ hit to create “She Drives Like Crazy,” which is self-explanatory.

ORIGINALS: 10. One moment that has always stuck with me from this album comes during “Generic Blues,” where Al tells his guitarist, “Make it talk, son.” Then the guitarist proceeds to play a repetitive two-note solo that sounds like an ambulance siren. Once his eight bars are almost over, Al says, “Okay, now make it shut up.” Not having much experience with the blues at age 8, I didn’t truly get the joke: I just liked the way Al said it. Now that I’ve actually heard a lot of blues – and heard that fateful phrase, “Make it talk” – I can’t help but think at the end of a solo, “Now make it shut up.” The other originals are utterly entertaining, too. Al rejiggers his “Slime Creatures From Outer Space” idea from Dare To Be Stupid into the more absurdly entertaining “Attack of the Radioactive Hamsters From A Planet Near Mars.” There are two hilarious sketches from the UHF film, the kick-ass movie theme song, plus an instrumental that acts as the theme to Stanley Spudowski’s Clubhouse in the movie. That’s not even mentioning the excellent 7-minute closer, “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota,” which spins a long-winded Harry Chapin-ish shaggy dog story about seeking out a stupid roadside attraction. Many folks champion “Albuquerque” from Running With Scissors because it’s so long and rambling and weird, but I think “Ball of Twine” does this sort of thing a whole heck of a lot better.

POLKA MEDLEY: 10. This time around, instead of medley-izing a bunch of hits, Al picked a bunch of Rolling Stones songs. Not sure why, but I’m glad he did. When I was 8 years old, I didn’t know the originals of these songs, but this medley made me love them before I really loved them. I think I am particularly fond of “Shattered” largely because of Al’s performance of it here.

OVERALL: 10. You may disagree, but this is the hands-down winner, y’all. Best Weird Al album ever.

Off The Deep End (1992)

PARODIES: 6. This album has aged a lot less successfully than I expected. I went into listening to this album thinking it was one of my favorites, but in fact, it’s pretty spotty. The opener, “Smells Like Nirvana,” is the key track obviously, but even that one is a little lacking without the hilarious parody video to distract from the fact that Al is pretty much making the exact same joke for 4 minutes straight. Released at a weird transitional time in mainstream music, the other parodies on the album don’t mock alt-rock but instead take aim at the lightweight pop acts like New Kids On The Block, Milli Vanilli, and MC Hammer that were popular just a couple years before. These efforts, maybe due to their source material, come off as vaguely rote.

ORIGINALS: 5. “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” mines a similar vein to “One More Minute,” detailing a literally imperiled relationship with absurdly violent imagery juxtaposed by the singer’s bland delivery; it ends the album on a high note. The other originals are pretty forgettable, although the Beach Boys-with-guns riff “Trigger Happy” seems a lot more noteworthy now than it did 20 years ago.

(Sorry for the friggin' subtitles, but the "official" version of this video is missing the first minute of the song. WTF Vevo!?)

POLKA MEDLEY: 10. For me, this is just the all-time best, and not just because all the hits being sampled, from Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” come straight out of my late grade-school days. This one, in my estimation, has the most inventive segues between songs, not to mention the hilarious drum solo.

OVERALL: 6. The opening and closing tracks have always been the best songs on the album. I just didn’t realize until now how much filler there is in-between.

Alapalooza (1993)

PARODIES: 9. This album was the exact opposite of Off The Deep End. While my memory of this album was that it was just okay, upon reappraisal, it seems like a very strong album that I think has been oddly underrated. All four parodies are sharp and quite funny nearly twenty years later. “Bedrock Anthem,” which takes two Red Hot Chili Peppers songs and turns them into a colorful synopsis of The Flintstones, stands as possibly the best song about TV Al has done. And “Jurassic Park” (Richard Harris’s “MacArthur Park”) revived a dormant but worthwhile vein of parody for Al that he had started a decade before (give or take) with “Yoda,” where he could take an older song and use it as a foundation to riff on a new movie. He’s since taken this idea and used it to spin songs about Star Wars: Episode I and Spider-Man, and while the songs he used as the basis for those parodies are better known oldies, I still haven’t heard “MacArthur Park.” It has something to do with cake, right?

ORIGINALS: 7. This album has a bunch of tunes that sound really good, but aren’t always laugh riots. For instance, “Talk Soup” has an awesome Peter Gabriel-meets-Stevie Wonder vibe, but the lyrics about the ridiculousness of TV talk shows are just okay. (Al would actually cover the same ground again with the song “Jerry Springer” in 1999, and pull it off a lot better.) And again, “Young, Dumb & Ugly” is an awesome fake-hair-metal track, but the lyrics never made me chuckle. Let’s not even get into “She Never Told Me She Was A Mime.”

(There's no official video for this song, so I went with what I could find. Not sure why this person is so mean to the Cyrus family.)

POLKA: 10. This time, instead of a full medley, Al just polka-fied Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was an excellent choice. If you were 12 years old at the time, you had just been introduced to the original version of this song from the funniest movie ever (from a 12-year-old in 1993’s perspective), Wayne’s World. It was the weirdest, most awesome song ever. Then your favorite comic musician turns it into a polka. Your mind is blown. Game over.

OVERALL: 8. Oddly underrated over the years, this one seems to have captured its pop cultural moment perfectly. It transcends mere nostalgia though, and remains worth a re-listen.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Bad Hair Day (1996)

PARODIES: 7. There’s no denying “Amish Paradise” ranks with Al’s very best, and the other single from this album, “Gump,” tends to overshadow the original Presidents of the United States of America version in my memory whenever I think of it. “Phony Calls” (TLC’s “Waterfalls”) is still the weakest song on the album 15 years later, but the remaining 2 parodies hold up okay, even if I don’t remember the songs they are mocking.

ORIGINALS: 9. This is where this album really shines. Some great style parodies I didn’t understand when I was 15, complimented by two of Al’s best sick-humor songs: “I Remember Larry,” where vicious pranks lead to murder, and another demented take on Christmas, “The Night Santa Went Crazy.”

POLKA MEDLEY: 8. Man, I don’t think there’s a bad polka medley on any of these albums, but not much really distinguishes this one so I don’t really have much to say about it. Al’s “You-oo-oo-oo-oo” when he sings Alanis Morissette is the highlight.

OVERALL: 8. This was the most pleasant surprise of all the albums I revisited. This was the last Weird Al album I listened to for a long time because I didn’t really like it, and kind of felt like I was growing out of Al. Revisiting it now, it plays as a far smarter and more layered album than I ever could have expected from a record that climaxes with an explosion of reindeer guts.

Running With Scissors (1999)

PARODIES: 7. This album was the first by Al that I didn’t bother to buy or borrow and copy from a friend. Still, I feel like I’ve heard these parodies floating in the ether somehow. I didn’t much like them then, but now, finally giving the album a full spin, I feel much more mellow toward these songs. None of them are particularly groundbreaking, but “Jerry Springer” (Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week”) takes the idea from Alapalooza’s “Talk Soup” and actually improves upon it. The Puff Daddy parody “It’s All About The Pentiums” feels like a dry run for “White and Nerdy,” but there’s a lot of great lines here.

ORIGINALS: 8. No stinkers, but no timeless classics either. The choice of Zydeco as the style for “My Baby’s In Love With Eddie Vedder” is particularly inspired though, and what a left-field idea to do a style parody of truck-driving songs!

POLKA MEDLEY: 7. Solid, but kind of by-the-numbers.

OVERALL: 7. I’m glad I finally caught up with this album, but it’s definitely good, not great.

Poodle Hat (2003)

PARODIES: 4. In 2003, my friends Steve and Josh played me this album, skipping around to give me a sense of it. My sense of it then – and now – is that the parodies are particularly weak. The lead parody of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” is pretty much the same song about watching a bunch of TV that Weird Al has made about 25 times before (trust me, I just listened to all 25 previous versions). Similarly, the parody of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” exemplifies the idea of reaching for low-hanging fruit by spinning verses about being constipated, decapitated, and related (to the woman you’re dating). The Nelly and Backstreet Boys parodies are pretty good, but purely in comparison to their dire companions.

ORIGINALS: 8. I’m a bit mad that my main impression of this album was colored by the sub-mediocre parodies. The originals, almost all of them style parodies, have an abundance of nuance and – you know – funny bits. Each one is a tour-de-force: a 9-minute epic aping the ADD style of Frank Zappa, a goofy series of romantic come-ons set to a funk vamp seemingly out of Beck’s Midnite Vultures, a series of nonsensical palindromes put in the mouth of ‘60s Dylan (you know… Bob. Get it?).

POLKA MEDLEY: 7. Another medley that’s solid without being particularly noteworthy. This video's cool though.

OVERALL: 6. Man, the crappy parodies really bring down the album overall, but the originals are so good, I’m tempted to make a Weird Al-originals-only cover band to highlight this side of his output.

Straight Outta Lynwood (2006)

PARODIES: 6. This is a hit-and-miss album overall. “White and Nerdy” has one of Al’s best set of lyrics, and “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” brilliantly transposes the insanity of R. Kelly’s work to an utterly banal setting. The other parodies lack the same spark, although some of the lines in the Usher parody made me laugh out loud.

ORIGINALS: 6. The mixed-bag vibe carries over to the originals, with only the operatic “Virus Alert,” which channels the cult band Sparks, as a true stand-out. The Cake sound-alike “Close But No Cigar” also does a nice job of spicing up Al’s usual take on the battle of the sexes.

POLKA MEDLEY: 9. Nice inclusion of the chicken song, and way to improve a lot of crummy "hits."

OVERALL: 6. A handful of real standouts, but it could have used a couple more fresh ideas to spice it up.

Alpocalypse (2011) - not yet reviewed

And so the stage is set for the new album: Where will it fit in the greater scheme of things?

Of course, Al has leaked a number of tracks from the album over the past two years, so I have a sense. My sense so far? I like the parodies, but I’m not completely warmed up to the new originals. But maybe when it’s all sequenced and pressed onto a silver disc (or a record! This is Al’s first album in 20+ years to get a vinyl release), the sum will become greater than its parts.

Hopefully, I should get the album shortly after it's released, and after it's sunk in a bit, maybe I'll post a review here.