We’re Just Technologically Impaired

After Alapalooza, “Weird Al” Yankovic didn’t put out another album until 1996, although in the interim his label released a boxed set. It was all material from previous albums aside from the demo version of “My Bologna” and a new song called “Headline News.” A parody of Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” it was guaranteed to be dated pretty soon, as it talked about three news stories from the time. Al has been known to sing updated verses in concert, covering celebrities like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. I don’t own the boxed set, but I do have Al’s Greatest Hits Volume II, which also includes “Headline News.” Anyway, the 1996 album was Bad Hair Day, with a cover combining the hairstyle of parody target Coolio with a title Al had been thinking of for some time. Don’t you just hate it when you wake up in the morning and your hair is in dreadlocks?

Amish Paradise – The lead single returns to the idea of mixing two incongruous ideas together, here Coolio’s rap about life in the ghetto mixed with the plain but rather dull lifestyle of the Amish. People have said the Amish were a perfect subject to make fun of because they’d never hear the song, but it’s not like it’s particularly mean, even if it does end with the line “you’d probably think it bites” and a collective “yecch.” No, the controversy here arose when Coolio claimed he’d never given Al permission to parody “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Whether there was a miscommunication or Coolio was lying for some kind of street cred (while still cashing the royalty checks), we don’t know. Coolio did eventually make up with Al, but I’m not sure what happened was ever really resolved. Maybe after voicing Kwanzaa Bot on Futurama, Coolio could no longer pretend he didn’t have a sense of humor. Anyway, “Amish Paradise” was a huge hit; I was a big Weird Al fan throughout high school, but suddenly in my senior year when this album came out, this became a much cooler thing to be. The song is quite clever, with such jokes as the reference to Amish children as “Amlettes,” a reference to the closing theme from Gilligan’s Island, the hypocritical “I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art” (I wonder if that was the origin of “humble bragging”), and the bit about turning the other cheek to a boy who kicks him in the butt because “I’ll be laughing my head off when he’s burning in Hell.” I don’t know that this last item is really associated with the Amish, but it certainly has a historical basis. I remember my sister, who was never into Weird Al, insisting that this song mentioned churning butter over and over. It actually does mention it twice, and you’d think Al could have come up with a different Amish stereotype for one of the lines. Oh, well.

The video for this song includes homages to Buster Keaton (the barn front falling down around Al, but him being safe because of the window) and Allan Sherman (the guy trying to use the telephone), as well as a sequence where everything but Al is moving backwards.

Everything You Know Is Wrong – This one was written as a style parody of They Might Be Giants, and it was partially what encouraged me to check them out in the first place; I’d only heard a few songs of theirs before getting Bad Hair Day. It references a lot of different TMBG songs, with a verse structure similar to “Turn Around” and a title similar to “Everything Right Is Wrong Again,” although Al has acknowledged that it actually came from Firesign Theatre. Al’s song also includes the common TMBG themes of car crashes, disembodied heads, and the narrator dying. I’ve seen some debate as to whether this actually sounds that much like TMBG, but it’s a good tribute and an excellent song regardless. I appreciate it when Al gets the chance to be totally absurd, and such concepts as going back in time to pay his phone bill and getting stuck next to the noisy ice machine in Heaven are hilarious. Maybe Heaven having a dress code explains that terrible “Christmas Shoes” song. I know TMBG has been reluctant to acknowledge Weird Al’s appreciation for them in the past due to their not wanting to be seen as a novelty band, but it appears that they might have softened a bit on it recently.

Cavity Search – Parodying U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” from the Batman Forever soundtrack, it addresses going to the dentist, something Allan Sherman had previously covered in his parody of “The Continental.”

Al’s song is competent, but not really all that funny. Its most interesting aspects are the use of an actual dentist’s drill (and an actual human tooth, from what I’ve read on the Internet) and the fading to Muzak at the end.

Callin’ in Sick – A general grunge style parody about faking sick from work and sitting around the house. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure why most jobs won’t let you just take a day off to recover every once in a while without having to pretend to be sick, but I’m sure some people would totally take advantage of it. There’s another twenty-seven in this one, and I’m particularly amused by the line, “Maybe I’ll make a huge color tapestry from my belly button lint.” I’ve always mentally paired it with the line about making a model of the Eiffel Tower out of Belgian waffles in “You Make Me.”

The Alternative Polka – At the time, alternative music was all the rage, but I’m still not sure exactly how that genre was defined. It encompassed grunge, but wasn’t limited to it. And while the name implies it wasn’t mainstream music, a lot of it was. You probably don’t want to see me rant about labels again, though. This one does the fake-out beginning like the previous two polkas did, but here it isn’t anywhere near as effective. I always like the polka medleys, and I particularly appreciate that Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” (which I’ve previously referred to as the “Party in the USA” of the nineties) leads into Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”; sudden shifts in tone while the music remains cheerful never get old. This is also the first polka where Al replaces curse words from the original song with goofy sound effects. An interesting bit of trivia is that it originally included Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” but Rivers Cuomo insisted on its removal at the last minute, so it had to actually be cut out of the tape. Al eventually posted the excised part on YouTube.

Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” was included in a later polka, so I guess they eventually came around to the idea of polkafication.

Since You’ve Been Gone – A short a cappella doo-wop song on which Al sings most of the vocals, the exception being the really low ones by bassist Steve Jay. (Interesting that the guy who played the low instrument would also have the low voice.) There’s a version of this with the lead vocal removed as a B-side of the Gump single, and I once sang along with it in school. I’m sure I was way out of tune, but it was fun.

Gump – I know the Presidents of the United States of America are big Weird Al fans, or at least Chris Ballew is, so I’m sure this was a dream come true for them. I can’t say I ever got into the Presidents; their songs were catchy enough, but I always felt like there was some joke to them I wasn’t getting. I do appreciate that they’ve collaborated with the Young Fresh Fellows, but I feel the Fellows should be the more famous band. It’s another song that retells the plot of a movie, although unlike with “Yoda” and “Jurassic Park,” both the parodied song and the movie were contemporary. I didn’t actually watch Forrest Gump until after hearing the song, and I think my main reaction was, “Yep, he certainly did all the things Al said he did.” There aren’t that many actual jokes here, although hearing Al say “slut” was amusing for a while. In a rather odd cameo, Pat Boone appears in the video as the guy who tries to eat the whole box of chocolates.

I’m So Sick of You – This hate song was inspired by early Elvis Costello, who’s actually sort of like POTUSA to me in being an artist that people with similar tastes to mine often like, but I’m not really familiar with his catalog. Although I didn’t think of it at first, it’s interesting that many of the things the narrator says he dislikes about his girlfriend are things she can’t really help, and while annoying are hardly the sort of things I would think would be deal-breakers. I like the the line about “when you ask me what I’m thinking,” because I hate that question too. Also worth noting is a bit where Al avoids a mild curse word: “You don’t have an ounce of class/You’re just one big pain in the neck.” Of course, you can say “ass” on network television, but Al’s tendency to leave out even mild profanity can be amusing in its own right.

Syndicated Inc. – A parody of Soul Asylum’s “Misery” that’s mostly just naming television shows. Al has already done so many TV songs that this comes across as rather superfluous. I do like the tune, but you can’t credit Al with that. On the other hand, you CAN credit him for including an accordion solo. Since there’s also accordion on “Everything You Know Is Wrong,” due to the fact that TMBG also uses the instrument a fair amount, the album can be considered a bit of an accordion comeback.

I Remember Larry – Another song where Al’s narrator is homicidal, but here it’s a little difficult to blame him, as the Larry character is incredibly annoying. Not that I advocate killing bullying pranksters, but I think all of our minds go there in their darker moments. TMBG fans have pointed out the psychedelic ending being similar to that of “See the Constellation,” but Al has said that the style was actually inspired by Hilly Michaels, who played drums for Sparks in the 1970s. I can’t say I’ve ever heard any of his music. The ending features Al’s second backwards message (the first being in “Nature Trail to Hell”), “Boy, you must have an awful lot of free time on your hands.”

Phony Calls – I have to wonder if the practice of kids making prank phone calls has died down, thanks to caller ID and all that. I can’t say I miss it, but we do still have telemarketers, and they might be worse. The song includes references to the classic prank call puns of asking if the refrigerator is running and whether someone has Prince Albert in a Can. I’m not even sure Prince Albert tobacco is still sold in a can, but the joke persists anyway. The sample from The Simpsons was from the episode “Blood Feud,” which first aired in 1991. By the time this album came out, the show was already phasing out the recurring gag of Bart prank calling Moe’s. It did appear in later episodes, but usually as more of a meta-joke. By the way, I’ve seen it pointed out that half the songs on this album mention telephones, and indeed this one comes right after another that mentions “wacky prank phone calls.”

The Night Santa Went Crazy – Al’s second Christmas song has a much less traditional sound for the genre, although it DOES include jingle bells. Based on a card Al once received, it turns the beloved children’s icon into a homicidal maniac, having him kill his reindeer in various graphic ways. Originally the song ended with Santa being shot to death by a SWAT team, but the label made him re-record it so that he’d end up in prison instead. Of course, if Santa received the Mantle of Immortality, could a bullet to the brain actually kill him? (Sorry, couldn’t resist a little L. Frank Baum reference there.) The original was released as a B-side on the Amish Paradise single as the Extra Gory Version, and in concert Al combined lines from both versions. I suspect the line, “I guess I won’t have the fat guy to kick around anymore” was a reference to how Al would kick Santa off the stage during live performances of “Fat.” Interesting that the National Guard and FBI show up to take down Santa; I wonder what forces really would be used to respond to a crisis at the North Pole.

While there are a fair number of weaker songs here, I do think it’s a clear improvement over Alapalooza particularly as far as the original songs go. Mind you, “Everything You Know Is Wrong” is awesome enough to make up for several other weak tracks. The every-few-years release schedule for Al’s albums would continue after this, with the next one coming out in 1999.

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4 Responses to We’re Just Technologically Impaired

  1. Kris says:

    Cool to see this. Maybe next time he’s in town we should all go to a show together. :) Looking forward to “Mandatory Fun”.

  2. samuraifrog says:

    I remember being a bit disappointed when the boxed set came out, because except for the two songs you mentioned, I already had all of the music! I was hoping for some of the never-released stuff, like “Pac-Man,” which is one of my favorites of his. Ah, well.

    Bad Hair Day was the first Al album to come out when I was in my twenties. It seemed like it had been SO LONG since Alapalooza, which it really wasn’t, but I had just crossed that threshold from ages 17 to 20, and you just change so much in that period…

    I love “Amish Paradise.” One of his masterpieces. I wonder if Stevie Wonder gets any money from it, since Coolio uses the backing from Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.” Never thought about that before, now that Al had gotten into parodying songs that sample other songs.

    I just find “Everything You Know Is Wrong” really, really charming. I love the accordion on it. Also, random Jamie Farr references just make me laugh incredibly hard. No idea why.

    “Competent” is definitely the word for “The Cavity Song.” I feel the same way about the source material, too. Competent, but overall, meh. I don’t find the early 90s to really be the best period in pop music.

    I like “Callin’ in Sick.” I get caught up in the relaxing vibe of it. I definitely could sit around in my underwear today and watch Ernest Goes to Camp.

    I dig “The Alternative Polka,” too. As I got more out of touch with music, I think this was the last polka he did where I knew every song before I heard it. Weird trivia from my life. Agreed about the weird, fluid definition of “alternative.” And I love sudden tone shifts, too. I always appreciated that Al ended with the lyrics “Am I just paranoid, or am I stoned?” from Green Day’s “Basket Case.” The lyrics were censored on the radio and even on MTV, to “Am I just paranoid, oh yeah-yeah-yeah.” Reminds me of his stand on The Weird Al Show, when he had the Barenaked Ladies on and refused to refer to them as “BNL” as he was directed.

    I love “Since You’ve Been Gone.” It’s snappy, quick and has a great punchline.

    Your line “Yep, he certainly did all the things Al said he did” made me laugh out loud. I have a great memory of seeing Forrest Gump alone at a theater in Atlanta when I was 18. I’ve regaled Becca a little too often about how it was the nicest movie theater chair I’ve ever been in. My body wants to be in that chair again the way it wants more oxygen. That was at the theater in the Turner Building.

    I like the song “Gump,” but I agree with you about the Presidents of the United States of America. Incidentally, I feel that way about Ben Folds, too, like there’s an in-joke I’m just not getting.

    I appreciate the musical style of “I’m So Sick of You,” but I sort of zone out during the song.

    “Syndicated Inc.” is kind of pleasant. It’s a nostalgia double kick for me now. First, because I watched most of the shows he mentions when I was a kid, and second because the original “Misery Inc.” just makes me feel nostalgic about the time period. Kevin Smith used it and other music from the time in Clerks II and it really hit me how that music now makes me nostalgic for the time period, because I had less responsibility then and was happier. And Clerks II was 10 years ago! I feel so old sometimes…

    I’m not much of a fan of “I Remember Larry.” I can see a little Sparks influence in the drums.

    “Phony Calls” doesn’t do much for me. Neither did the original.

    “The Night Santa Went Crazy” I don’t have much to say about, but I enjoy it.

    I agree it’s an improvement over Alapalooza, but still a mixed bag. Like that one, it’s not an album I’m really close to.

    • Nathan says:

      I guess part of the reason there weren’t any rarities on the boxed set is that a lot of them were unreleased because Al didn’t get permission to release them. I don’t see why he couldn’t have included rare originals, though. I know he’s said they’re not that good, and in many cases he’s right, but wouldn’t you have to be a pretty big fan to want to buy a boxed set anyway?

      I think there’s a writing credit for Stevie Wonder in the liner notes, but whether or not he gets royalties, I couldn’t say.

      Radio censorship has never made a whole lot of sense to me. I seem to recall one day when, on the same station, I heard a song where they cut out the word “weed.” Then they played MIA’s “Paper Planes,” which uses the same word, and left it in.

      I quite like Ben Folds, but I guess I can see how a lot of his stuff is kind of in-jokey.

      The thing with BHD in general is that, while in retrospect it’s not one of his best, it came out at a rather significant time for me. I’ve heard people say that they think the pinnacle of music is around when they finish high school. This is not even remotely true for me; there was some good stuff in the nineties, but when I think back to what’s considered “nineties music,” it kind of comes off as rather dull and detached. The fact that one of the biggest albums of the decade was called Nevermind is kind of an appropriate summary. That said, it was around that time that I really started collecting music on my own, instead of just listening to what someone else had on. A fair amount of it wasn’t contemporary, but some of it was. As for Al, even if the material he had to parody wasn’t the greatest, it was cool to finally get a NEW album of his after getting his back catalog.

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