You might not know it on first listen—in fact, it might seem patently ridiculous on first listen—but the recordings of James Kolchaka are a barometer for your expectations of what music should be.
Maybe you don’t know his name, but while the “Superstar” label is ironic and tongue-in-cheek to be sure, in his own right James Kolchaka has come to fit the bill. As a comic book writer/artist, he’s been critically and commercially successful while working in the oft-ignored world of indie comics. Having won awards and accolades for series and graphic novels including Magic Boy and Robot Elf, Peanutbutter and Jeremy, and Monkey vs. Robot, Kolchaka has catapulted himself into the realm of self-made comic stars such as Chris Ware and Jhonen Vasquez. His video clips have been Internet sensations and have wound up on Nickelodeon, and his online sketchbook comic American Elf has tied his paper publications to the online comic world in a manner that epitomizes the potential of both as prophesied by comics advocate Scott McCloud. There’s even been talk of a Monkey vs. Robot TV show.
But there’s also the aspect of James Kolchaka, musician. For years, as Kolchaka was building his fame in comics, he’s also been writing and recording goofy songs with a band of friends under the alternating monikers James Superstar Kolchaka and James Superstar Kolchaka (the latter seeming to come into use as the appellation became more and more appropriate). Like his comics, this music has primarily been independent and promoted by word of mouth, especially over the Internet. But unlike his comics, his music—at least, that not attached to an animated video—has primarily remained underground. Self-recorded and self-released, James Superstar Kolchaka’s original pressings were always limited editions, and copies of those homemade albums became instant rarities, occasionally sold on eBay and frequently traded over file-sharing networks. Now, Rykodisc has collected some of his most popular tunes for this collected set, bringing Kolchaka’s songs to a more mainstream audience.
The problem here is that as an underground novelty act, Kolchaka’s music has an off-the-cuff flair and homebrewed populism that makes the jokes work in context. You see, as is perhaps expected of a comic artist, these are mostly joke songs. The tracks are primarily humorous, typically brief, and for the most part, fairly crass. “Magic Finger” is an ode to the penis, “Talk to the Wooky” [sic] extols the virtues of cunnilingus, and “Pee”, well, that’s pretty self-explanatory. As a bunch of dumb songs written in good humor, sloppily recorded, and pressed for a limited release, they have a silly, naïve charm. Passed around though emails and hotlinks, they have enough “joke of the day” qualities to titillate and amuse, but they don’t exactly have any kind of musical or lyrical depth, and they’re generally too base to even qualify for the Dr. Demento show. Kolchaka sounds like a half drunk Jello Biafra most of the time, and while there is a rudimentary rock element to the songs, there certainly aren’t any clever melodies to make up for the juvenile jokery. This isn’t Frank Zappa… it’s an adolescent play on Zappa-like qualities. In other words, it’s fun for fun’s sake.
But whether or not you can value it as music is the most interesting aspect of this release. If you require the music you buy to be engaging, moving, or meaningful, then James Kolchaka is not for you. This disc’s liner is a Kolchaka comic about how thoughtlessly he tosses off songs, after all. But if you appreciate the ability of music to be rough and utilitarian, democratic and gonzo—and dumb jokes on the Farrelly Brothers level—then you might see a lot of admirable qualities in the songs of Our Most Beloved. There’s nothing here that you need to hear as a fan of music, but if you have fond memories of getting drunk or high and banging out some quick and dirty songs with cheap chords and lyrics invented on the spot, then you’ll probably appreciate Kolchaka’s ability to grinningly set this stuff to tape his amusement and that of others.
The one things that recommends this collection above anything else Kolchaka has produced is the bonus DVD that includes the animated music videos for the cult classics “Monkey vs. Robot” and “Hockey Monkey”. Set to silly animations, these songs make more sense, which is as revealing as anything else. Fans who don’t already have the files cached and archived will be happy to have them collected all in one place as well. But Kolchaka’s true superstar status will continue to be built on his comics work. Even as a best-of, his music remains little more than a novelty.
// Notes from the Road
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