Did you hear the one about the SNL guys who made a CD?
For a comedy musical act, the Lonely Island’s timing could have been better. With Flight of the Conchords riding a wave of popularity and, yes, even wittier music than ever (“Girlfriends from the Past”, e.g.), the troupe best known for their work with Saturday Night Live always had their work cut out for them. Comparisons are going to be made. But Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone knew what they were getting into, and those millions of YouTube viewers surely found something to look at over and over again. It’s disappointing, then, that, the Lonely Island’s CD debut plays as trite and, well, easy as it does.
The Lonely Island have the success story that combines right place/right time with the everyman appeal of a college improve troupe -- they mine vulgarity profusely, they hit obvious targets (old white people dancing), and they get much mileage out of juxtaposition (most famously, coaxing out of Natalie Portman a stream of gangster-rap profanity). Their innovations at SNL have surely contributed to that program’s renaissance in the US, largely because their Digital Shorts are built for viral video status. These songs are absurd, canny parodies of popular styles, and they’re produced with clean beats and a remarkably professional sheen. Plus, they’re pretty catchy, too. But are they funny?
As we well know, a “funny” premise doesn’t always lead to an end-product with punchlines that actually make you laugh. The Lonely Island fall into this trap here and there on Incredibad -- most notably on a song with Jack Black about a ‘virtuoso’ saxophone player who, it turns out, can’t play. It may be a layer of the joke that the sax is actually a synthesizer, but the whole thing sounds so fake you’re not quite sure how to react.
Flight of the Conchords’ songs get funnier and funnier each time you hear them, as individual lines and off-hand accentuations take on new prominence and meaning. The slower pace of the material means you can actually sing along -- you soon know all the words. But the Lonely Island’s chosen genres -- hip-hop and R&B -- make this more difficult; most of the time, the guys are growling or rapping at a pace that prohibits easy repetition of the funny lines. Or else, they’re repeating catchphrases (“I’m on a boat”, “Like a boss”), which work as parody but not as songwriting. Since they’re primarily comedians, not musicians, they sometimes miss the opportunity to punctuate an otherwise promising song with a killer chorus. Even their most recognizable material like “Lazy Sunday” and “Jizz in my Pants” are like this; these songs have the potential to be a new “Asshole”, but as it is we will probably not be talking much about the Lonely Island outside the context of SNL in a few months. On the other hand, when they let the pop-music clichés flow free, the results are relatively successful. “Boombox”, maybe the most complete song here, neatly combines the Lonely Island’s absurdist tendencies and its fratty comedy with an Usher-style club banger that ends up close to an actual Usher-style club banger. Julian Casablancas is having a good time, though he never gets to really cut loose.
Incredibad is packed with celebrity cameos, and as we’ve come to know through watching the group’s videos, there’s a certain pleasure in watching celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, or T-Pain take the piss out of themselves. Unfortunately, this is largely drained when you’re listening to the songs sans-video. What makes the group a little more interesting than the celebrity aspect is the obviously heartfelt appreciation of the form they’re parodying. There’s a reason why reviews of Incredibad continually mention the Beastie Boys -- these Californians quite clearly grew up worshipping the group, and the result is not so much influence as tribute. “I’m on a Boat” gets the flippant catchphrase-toting popular rap song form perfectly; “Like a Boss” upbraids Southern rap’s drug-addled non-sequiturs as well as its fake violence; “Dreamgirl” undermines R&B romance with, er, an advertisement for Chex Mix.
The consequence of creating viral videos is that once they’re out there, they’re out there. It’s entry-level logic: if the Lonely Island’s songs work best as videos, and if the videos are out on YouTube, and if the rest of the songs on their CD don’t have anywhere near the appeal of the videos... then what, exactly, is the point in listening to it?