Underground rapper Pigeon John is a modest joker. In the sleepy organ jam “Dude, It’s On”, he subverts the idea of a road trip by depicting it as boring, an excuse to drink brews and eat Chick-O-Sticks with his homies in front of the Motel 6 TV. John sings the chorus — as he does most of the Dragon Slayer album — in a pleasant drawl, flipping between confident statements of “Oh yeah, It’s On” and the more wistful reality-check, “It’s about to be On…” You get the sense that this is how the actual trip played out: a lot of wasted time, with the promise of abandon perpetually around the next sunset. It’s a smart idea, but unfortunately, the song itself never takes off melodically or lyrically. The rest of the album is similar — it always seems like it’s about to be “On”, but it rarely gets more than half way there.
John gets pretty “On” in opening song “The Bomb”, which Volkswagen had the good sense to use in a commercial, despite John’s endorsement of his phat Cadillac. It’s a catchy clip-clop about being “about to blow up”, supported by handclaps, tambourines, screaming organ, and shout-outs to Molly Ringwald and Frank Sinatra. With a trumpet part and more rapping, it could’ve been a Cake tune. Indeed, “Bomb” is the best thing on the album: a polite way of saying it’s all downhill from there. The music on Dragon Slayer is a promising mix of live instruments and programming, but for the most part, the hooks aren’t much, and the music’s too square and quirky to connect, let alone rock bodies.
John’s music walks the purlieus of independent Christian rap and middle class life. He spent some time in the L.A. Symphony crew, and he’s recorded with Grits and 4th Avenue Jones, among a bunch of others. As such, he likes to mock the materialistic conceits of mainstream rap — Cadillacs, gangsterism, misogyny — in a way that’s low-key and self-deprecating.
In the song that goes “I feel so damn gangster”, he drinks coffee in the backyard and reps Depeche Mode and Super Mario. This would be a great parody if we believed for a second that John (or his character) actually considered himself a gangster. When the guys in Lonely Island brag about being on a boat, they sound like they’re genuinely WAY TOO PROUD to be on a boat, and hilarity ensues. When Pigeon John calls himself a gangster, he sounds like he’s spending a quiet afternoon snickering in his yard. No hilarity.
In song, John owns a home, but he’s not unduly aspirational — he’s respectful of women and family, and he works hard. These are subjects that are often overlooked in pop music, a shame since vast swaths of the listening public could probably relate. But in John’s hands, you get the idea that they’re not very interesting song topics.
In “To Do List”, for example, John’s wife goes on a trip and leaves him a to-do list, apparently consisting of three chores: take out the trash, feed the pets, and make some phone calls. John gets sidetracked by Denny’s and XBox, doesn’t do his chores, and has to eat crow. This scenario is both unrealistic — seriously, how long does it take to do those particular chores? — and hackneyed. If only he’d fallen into some sort of Adventures in Babysitting scenario or detailed how to install a garage door opener, the lyrics might have some kick. (Those are just brainstorms, but remember when Buck 65 explained the correct way to shine shoes in “Craftsmanship”? FASCINATING.) Pigeon John seems to get a kick from his everyday dude-ness, but on Dragon Slayer, he has trouble communicating why anybody else should care.