As a comedian, Neil Hamburger’s schtick is that he’s not funny. He’s awkward and grimacing. He has a greasy comb-over and a tacky tuxedo. He tells bad jokes. The whole act has a distinctly British feel to it, with his humor based almost entirely on discomfort.
But the levels of knowing in his comedy are a bit puzzling. He knows he’s not being funny, which he knows (or supposes) will be perceived as funny, so he writes jokes, and affects a manner, that is intentionally not funny, with the intention, even expectation, of being funny. He takes the same tact with his new album, Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners. The album finds him singing for the first time in his career, backed by a more than serviceable country band.
The claim that he’s singing is a bit of a stretch. He is mostly just talking, in his grating, nasal voice, over music. And the fact that these are songs and not stand-up bits doesn’t change Hamburger’s objective much. These are bad country songs, full of bad jokes, meant to take shots at bad country tropes. Most of them are funny ideas for songs. “How Can I Still Be Patriotic (When They’ve Taken Away My Right to Cry)” could be a hilarious send-up of just about every country trope all at once. “Three Piece Chicken Dinner” could be a funny take on the struggling-singer song. And “Jug Town” could be a clever song taking aim at the sad drunk tune. They all could be those things. But none of them are.
The trouble with this album, and really with Hamburger’s comedy in general, is he seems to not care at all about his source material. Intentionally or not, in these songs and on the stage Hamburger seethes contempt for comedy and, on the album, country music. Something like Ween’s tongue-in-cheek 12 Golden Country Greats is a much stronger shot at jokily handling country music. Here we get no sense of reverence form Hamburger. Not only that, but if he really doesn’t like country music, if he’s trying to cut it down, well he’s doing a poor job of that, too. The band behind him is playing solid, if by-the-numbers, country music all the way through, and the witless “joke” lyrics that he snarls over them are just plain grating.
If this is supposed to be parody, then we need to see Hamburger understand country music better. What we get from this album are jokes based on a lack of information. People who’s understanding of country music stops and starts with a disdain for Alan Jackson or Toby Keith would make the sort of jokes Hamburger tries to make here. Even his (supposed) take on “liberal country”, where he goes on a curse-laden rant about recycling in “The Recycling Bin”, falls flat. Even the interest you might initially see in the covers on here — the Mark Eitzel-penned “The Hula Maiden” and John Entwistle’s “Thinkin’ It Over” — fades away when you hear the songs rendered in the same dull way. Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners fails to be funny or charming in just about every way and, in committing so wholly to this persona, Hamburger completely avoids committing to any of his comedy. His work is based so deep in knowing irony, and we are let in on the joke so early, that it seems impossible that it could be at all funny or surprising.