[17 May 2012]
Comedy rock duo Tenacious D has always succeeded as a result of self-perpetuated myths. On “Tribute”, from their self-titled debut in 2001, Jack Black and Kyle Gass chronicled the time they “just so happened” to play “the Best Song in the World” in order to prevent a demon from eating their souls. Follow-up The Pick of Destiny (2006) was the soundtrack to their feature-length film/origin story of the same name. Highlights included beseeching the late, great Ronnie James Dio for spiritual guidance and beating the devil (Dave Grohl) in a rock-off challenge, again sparing their souls (well, at least Gass’s soul) from hell.
These mythic qualities suit Tenacious D because they exaggerate the band’s achievements and contribute to the overall sense of unwarranted confidence that fuels the comedy. Although the music underneath the humor has become increasingly polished since the band’s formation in the mid-‘90s, the primary function of Tenacious D is to amuse. One could argue that there’s an inverse relationship at work: As the production value of the music improves, the jokey central conceit of the band fades into the distance. If they no longer sound like open-mic heroes (in their own minds) that originally gained a following on a short-lived HBO series in the late ‘90s, then a new shtick needs to rise to fill the void that exists where the old joke used to be.
Rize of the Fenix is an attempt to attach Tenacious D to a new myth—that of the disgraced band emerging from failure and winning back its supremacy. The specific disgrace (identified in the very first line of the first song, “Rise of the Fenix”) is the critical and commercial failure of The Pick of Destiny. Six years is a long time to wait to respond to an embarrassing career step, but Tenacious D has traditionally moved at a slow pace, releasing only three albums in its 18-year tenure. So timing isn’t what makes Rize of the Fenix such a colossal disappointment. Tenacious D’s album number three fails to capture the comic energy of the band’s prior musical output and pales in comparison to other, much funnier rock music moments by the band’s contemporaries.
A few songs do flourish, and they would form the Best Tracklist in the World if Rize of the Fenix were an EP. The title track develops slowly but eventually presents a scenario of Black and Gass approaching self-awareness: “But what if it’s true / If Tenacious D has died, what will we do? And what will we do / About all the fans who have the D tattoo?” From there, the song imagines fans having tattoos lasered off and then hearing an epic Tenacious D revival, henceforth getting new tattoos in tribute to the band. The song presents an arc of failure and redemption similar to past Tenacious D challenges that assign game-changing stakes to mundane tasks such as composing a single song.
There are three songs in the tradition of raunchy fan favorite “FHG”, the Tenacious D classic that uses foulmouthed language to teach listeners the importance of treating women sensitively. The paradoxical humor of “FHG” returns on “Señorita”, “Low Hangin’ Fruit”, and “39”. On mariachi-influenced “Señorita”, Black defends the sweet Conchita’s honor by challenging brutish Larry to a bar fight. Alas, Conchita doesn’t appreciate the gesture. “Low Hangin’ Fruit” is a paean to average-looking women and is canny in the way it positions Black and Gass on the prowl. The perspective of the song assumes that they are going for low-hanging fruit for an easy grab, but what goes unsaid is that our two heroes have never been in the best physical shape themselves. Awareness of this contradiction provides an additional layer of humor.
Lest anyone doubt that the two men are fully aware of the incongruity of patronizing a woman’s average looks from a position of utter averageness, the song “39” hilariously details a middle aged man’s “settling” for a 39-year-old girlfriend. Lyrically, “39” is a filthy song, but Black sings with such conviction and vocal variety that the song’s comic power is difficult to deny. Black’s voice in the song seems inspired by actual singers Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and Bob Dylan, but it also sounds like fictional funny characters such as Bill Paxton’s “Coconut Pete” and Will Ferrell’s “Ashley Schaeffer”.
That “39” succeeds via its comparisons to other recognizable rock and comedy voices is an exception for Rize of the Fenix. Fully three quarters of the album lacks energy and/or unfavorably relates to many rock-meets-comedy releases that exist in the same entertainment space as Tenacious D. “Rivers of Brown” might be mistaken for a Quebec-era Ween track if the lyrics contained any wit or mystique. “To Be the Best” would be funnier if Dirk Diggler hadn’t already butchered Stan Bush’s “The Touch” in Boogie Nights. “Roadie” takes obvious inspiration from Seger’s “Turn the Page”, but it also recycles Tenacious D’s own “The Road” and fails to match “Life on the Road”, Heidecker & Wood’s deadpan tour tale from last year’s brilliant and underrated Starting from Nowhere.
Rize of the Fenix reveals a Tenacious D that has fallen behind its musical peers, and since there is no visual accompaniment this time, it’s hard to say whether this material would fare any better if executed as a film or television show. In fact, the most frustrating thing about Rize of the Fenix is that it pretends Tenacious D’s previous release (2008’s Complete Master Works 2 DVD) doesn’t exist. Jeremy Konner’s D Tour: A Tenacious Documentary, included in that DVD set, has already detailed the reality of The Pick of Destiny’s failure and its impact on the relationship between Black the movie star and Gass the supporting player. “The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage” is an inferior retread of D Tour, providing no fresh insight, and only adding insult to injury by having Black narrate the entire tale, thus doubly excluding Gass. Ostensibly the centerpiece of Rize of the Fenix, “The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage” merely highlights how bereft of new ideas Tenacious D is at the present stage of its career, and the song’s preoccupation with Black’s perspective suggests that he is to blame for the creative drought.