James Kochalka is a comic artist.
The visual manifestation of Kochalka’s art looks like arrested development, but reads much smarter—crude, colorful (when there’s color involved at all) drawings that somehow look even more two-dimensional than the typical comic environment disarm the reader enough that his smart and often intensely personal dialogue can be enough to shock and, usually, delight that same reader. His most celebrated project American Elf is a daily webcomic that also serves as a running diary of his life, giving readers a tiny window into the previous day in the life of the artist.
Spread Your Evil Wings and Fly
US: 12 Sep 2006
UK: Available as import
I mention this because if you know James Kochalka’s visual style, you also know his musical style. The layers of irony are almost too thick to unfold, because you get the sense that he knows better. You see, the music contained on Spread Your Evil Wings and Fly, as on every James Kochalka Superstar album, is pretty awful. But there’s a difference between James Kochalka Superstar-awful and, say, that new Killers album-awful: Kochalka is willfully awful.
There’s a song on Spread Your Evil Wings and Fly called “Bad Song”, which has the following refrain: “Bad song stuck in head / me no sleep / me no rest / stuck in head / for a week / me no sleep / me no think / it itches, it itches / pull down your britches.” The irony, of course, is that the song is a version of the ‘80s-influenced, synth-enhanced hooey that just happens to rock out harder than you might expect from such a description. Thanks to the incredibly simple melodies and highly rhythmic chant of that refrain, then, “Bad Song” becomes its own really bad song that really, honestly does get stuck in your head. Thinking about this for too long could start a recursive loop in your brain which may or may not give you an aneurysm. Of course, at its best, that’s what James Kochalka Superstar’s music is all about.
Months before the album’s release, another of its songs, the oddly brilliant centrepiece that is “Britney’s Silver Can”, received a fair amount of press for its hilarious, one-minute balladeriffic description of the travails of one Britney Spears. The true genius of the song, however, is it spending three minutes on a coda that does nothing but repeat the name of the one person who could possibly understand Britney, one Justin Timberlake. I mean, when you take into consideration that the entire album is a mere 26 minutes or so, this is “Hey Jude”-scale repetition. Timberlake’s name is actually repeated for a longer duration than the total running time of any other song on the album. And yet, it’s done with such a straight face, the voices growing so much more earnest and powerful as the song rises to its conclusion, that you almost end up feeling that if Britney and Justin could just get back together again, the world’s problems could be solved. And then you feel stupid, because, well, look what you just thought.
Not only is the album funny and silly in ways that make you feel funny and silly, it’s educational, too. There’s a song called “Wash Your Ass”, which is about how nobody’s gonna want to date a dirty dude who doesn’t wash his ass, and “Why is the Sky Blue”, which is either a bunch of overly simplistic questions over and over again or a study in existentialist philosophy. I’ll let you know when I figure out which.
Elsewhere on the album are tales of drugs (“Cocaine”), patriotism (“This Is How We Rock in America”), and, um, chooglin’ (“Chooglin’ to the Nth Degree”), delivered in the most simplistic terms imaginable, making for James Kochalka bringing on the Rawk in an everyman sort of way that Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen left behind long ago. You see, James Kochalka is the everyman of the digital age, for whom pop culture and snark are as important as the source of his next paycheck and earnest sincerity. And he just happens to be able to make music that’ll make you run around your room and break things—sometimes, it doesn’t get much better than that.