Well, It’s a Paradigm Shift Now

Are you all ready for some Mandatory Fun? “Weird Al” Yankovic’s fourteenth album just came out this week, and he says there’s a good chance it will be his last physical record. That’s not to say he’s retiring, just seriously considering switching to digital distribution of individual songs. I’ve made no bones about the fact that I prefer albums, but I can kind of see his point. It’s not like Al has done concept albums or anything. On the other hand, I like the fact that they tend to alternate between direct parodies and original songs, and I’m always somewhat interested in track order. If this does turn out to be true, it’s the end of an era, but not the end of Weird Al. Anyway, this new album features a fitting name and artwork of Al as a dictator. As far as the songs go…well, let’s see.

Handy – About eighteen years ago, Al wrote a parody of the theme from Friends about home repair, the joke being that he intended it as the theme to Home Improvement. Of course, Home Improvement predated Friends by a few years, but whatever.

Apparently the Rembrandts were okay with it, but NBC didn’t want the song to be overexposed. Yeah, good job with THAT, guys. Anyway, Al seems to be someone who never wastes an idea, and this song has a lot of the same jokes. The parody target is Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” which is apparently a big hit with the kids, but I wasn’t familiar with it. I listened to it when I found out Al was parodying it, and I can’t say I was that fond of it. Like, what is Ms. Azalea going for with that voice? I like the parody, though; I think Al sometimes manages to make songs more listenable. The video shows Al’s character with blond hair and a mustache, which I guess he thought made him fit the role better. Or is it because Iggy has blonde hair? I don’t know.

Lame Claim to Fame – This is a style parody of Southern Culture on the Skids, and while I’m sure I’ve heard them before (I believe my dad had one of their albums), I’m not familiar enough to really tell where the style is coming from. I think it would count as rockabilly. The lyrics are about the narrator’s weak connections to celebrities, like knowing someone who had jury duty with Art Garfunkel and using the same napkin dispenser as Steve Carrell. It also references Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the Nigerian Prince scam, and people posting “first” on Internet comments. If this one is video fodder (and I’m guessing it might be, since there are some pictures floating around that would best fit this song), I’ll bet someone is going to post “first” there. I also just had to look up Kim Kardashian’s birthday, and it turns out to be three days before Al’s.

Foil – The title for this parody of Lorde’s “Royals” might seem pretty obvious, and the first verse hearkens back to the food theme that Al has been using less in his recent work. He continues in a more bizarre theme related to the same subject for the second verse, getting into the character of a foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist, and tying together a lot of different ideas along these lines. I was curious as to where the foil hat idea actually comes from, and Wikipedia suggests a 1927 story by Julian Huxley. It also points out that there’s some basis to aluminum foil providing protection from radio waves, but whether telepathy would work the same way is anyone’s guess. Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant from The State appear in the video as men in black.

Sports Song – This pretty much gets to the point of every sports fight song out there: “We’re great, and you suck.” The use of technical language (“Try to assimilate that information, and it might just help to cope with your impending loss”) reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s football fight song “Fight Fiercely, Harvard,” although Al’s isn’t quite as genteel.

The video features the marching band from Riverside City College, not far from Los Angeles.

Word Crimes – Al has made a few short videos where he corrects common grammatical mistakes on signs and such, so this song is in some ways the extension of that. I’m impressed that Al managed to turn Robin Thicke’s popular but controversial “Blurred Lines” into an anthem for language snobs. I’ll admit to being a bit of one myself, although I’ve eased up on it in recent years. While I’m not sure what I’d consider the best song on this album, “Word Crimes” is probably the most original, although I guess you could say it’s sort of a meaner version of Schoolhouse Rock. Al has admitted to sticking in a split infinitive as a joke, perhaps to emphasize that no one is free from the occasional hypocrisy in this respect: “That really makes me want to literally smack a crowbar upside your stupid head.” I suspect “smack a crowbar upside” is also somewhat grammatically flawed, although I’m not sure how to say it properly. “TO the upside OF your head,” perhaps? And while the phrase “cunning linguist” is an old joke, it’s still amusing that Al is getting crap past the radar, as they say. The animated video includes references to the number twenty-seven, Al’s character from UHF, the “get a brain, morans” guy, and Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.” No naked ladies with inexplicable goats, however.

My Own Eyes – I kind of think the lyrics to this one come across as mostly wacky for the sake of wacky, which isn’t to say they aren’t funny, just that there isn’t any larger point that I can see (with my own eyes, anyway). I know it’s a Foo Fighters style parody, but is it tackling any particular song of theirs? I do have to say it sounds really good music-wise. The guitar riff is quite reminiscent of Velvet Revolver’s “Slither,” which Al had earlier used in “Polkarama!” My favorite line is “I saw a mime get hacked to death with an imaginary fever,” although the old man dying of Bieber Fever in the next line comes close.

NOW That’s What I Call Polka! – Since I understand some of the titles for earlier polka medleys come from compilation albums, it’s about time he got to this one! For me, it’s the polkas more than the parodies where I tend to think, “Hey, why didn’t he use this song? It would have been perfect!” Of course, there are both rights and arrangement issues to deal with there. Some of the classic sound effects (breaking glass, gunshots, bird calls) are featured here, as is Al’s wife Suzanne screaming during “Scream & Shout.” I’d say the funniest bit is during “Thrift Shop,” when Al starts replying to the lines like he did with “Last Night” in “The Angry White Boy Polka.” The way he says, “I do!” and “It’s large!” crack me up. While the best polkafications often tend to be the ones that totally change the mood from the originals, the format can also be effective in mocking the repetitiveness of songs, in this case Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” being the obvious example. I hope the end of physical Al-bums doesn’t mean the end of Al’s polka medleys as well, but sadly I saw an indication that it might, as they’re a lot of work for him. He did provide some hope that they might stay alive in concert, however, so anyone attending an Al show after the promotion for this album ends had better make some good recordings! Speaking of which, I found a pre-album version of “Polkas on 45” on YouTube, which includes a few songs that didn’t make it to the final cut, like “Der Kommissar,” “1999,” “She Blinded Me with Science,” and “Stairway to Heaven.”

Mission Statement – While most of Al’s parodies are of recent songs (the four that pair classic songs with recent movies being the exceptions), the style parodies provide Al an opportunity to take on some stuff from earlier eras. This one takes on the style of Crosby, Stills, Nash and/or Young with lyrics incorporating as many corporate buzzwords as possible. It’s somewhat more subdued in its humor than many of the others here, letting the ridiculous language speak for itself instead of actively joking about it. And the musical arrangement is excellent, especially when it brings in the added harmonies towards the end.

Inactive – Here’s another one where I didn’t know the source material, Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.” Listening to it, I thought it had an interesting sound but wasn’t that great overall. I kind of have to say the same thing about Al’s version, which is easily the weakest of the parodies on the album. I’ve heard that there were a few other parodies of this song with the “inactive” theme before Al’s, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I’ve heard that other people came up with “Another One Rides the Bus” and “Gump” before he did, and I’m sure many children independently thought up “Eat It”; but Al’s versions were obviously the definitive ones), it’s a little disappointing when he seems to be trying for more original ideas with most of his recent parodies. Oh, well.

First World Problems – I remember reading that Frank Black’s kids always wanted to listen to Weird Al, and since this is a Pixies style parody, I guess they can now listen to Weird Al imitating their dad. Actually, he doesn’t really go for an imitation of Frank’s voice, but he does latch onto how, particularly on earlier Pixies songs, Frank often sings the higher parts and Kim Deal the lower. Here, the Kim part is sung by Amanda Palmer, another artist whose work I’ve been eagerly following in the past few years. It’s sort of a trade-off, since Al was one of many guest vocalists on the Evelyn Evelyn song “My Space.” There are hints of “Debaser” and “Tame” from Doolittle in the music. As for the words, the First World Problems meme has been around for a while now, but Al DID record this one over a year ago. As of this writing, this was the most recent video to come out, and it’s pretty literal aside from the narrator’s comeuppance at the end. Maybe it should have had Al just holding his mouth open instead of lip-syncing, like in the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man” video.

Tacky – Pharrell Williams’ admittedly catchy “Happy” here becomes a list of tacky clothing and behaviors. Al really seems to have a knack for capturing some of the most annoying things people do, often online. I think I might actually like it if someone brought along a coupon book on a date, though. The video for this one features Margaret Cho, Kristen Schaal, Jack Black, and some other comedians I’m less familiar with.

Jackson Park Express – After ending Running with Scissors with “Albuquerque,” Al has placed an atypically long song at or near the end of each album. This one, largely inspired by Cat Stevens, isn’t as epic as some of those, but it’s still quite clever. The song is told from the point of view of a guy who imagines a detailed, intimate, and bizarre conversation with a woman on a bus (in Chicago, apparently) based only on minor gestures. It includes some amusing puns and entertaining creepiness, although at least this unhinged narrator doesn’t pursue the object of his affection like the ones in “Melanie” or “Do I Creep You Out?”, as he takes her brushing against his leg on the way off the bus as an indication that she’s breaking up with him.

So how does this album stack up to the others? I don’t know; I think I’m long past the point where I can make any attempt at ranking them. In many ways, it’s more of the same; yet Al also consistently manages to come up with new ways to tweak his formula, and new subjects to lampoon. Nothing here was particularly unexpected, but it has the right mix of wordplay, sarcasm, absurdity, and technical skill that make Al a lasting success as both a musician and a comedian.

So, should I go back and do a song-by-song review of Alpocalypse, or is that enough Al for a while? Let me know.

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5 Responses to Well, It’s a Paradigm Shift Now

  1. Pingback: I’m On Top Of The World! – Imagine Dragons | Sourcerer

  2. samuraifrog says:

    I’ll be honest, I’m surprised Al hasn’t gone with digital distribution of individual songs already. I thought he was shifting in that direction during the Alpocalypse era, but I guess this is the last album in a contract. But just releasing a song when he feels like it or has inspiration seems like it would help him stay relevant and solve the problem of waiting until an album release to parody a song from three years earlier. But I will miss the albums, too.

    When did Friends hit the air? 1994? I drove a delivery van for a living from 1997 to 2000, and I STILL heard “I’ll Be There for You” about 10 times a day on the radio. I think “Handy” is a good opener because it has a specific sound that calls attention to itself, but it was my least favorite of the video releases. (Some good sight gags, though; my favorite was the plush, fur-lined toolbox.) Like you, I looked up “Fancy” when I found out Al was parodying it, and I think it’s utterly stupid. I’ve been hearing it called “the song of the summer” for a couple of months, but I never heard it until I looked it up specifically for this reason. It’s the kind of dopey, terrible song that I don’t understand the popularity of. Oh, well: I’m 38, it’s not for me. Let the kids have their trash.

    I’ve never heard of Southern Culture on the Skids. I like “Lame Claim to Fame.” The lyrics remind me of a lot of stuff I come across on Tumblr.

    I love “Foil.” I just think it’s hilarious how the second verse is suddenly in a completely different vein than the first. Great video.

    I also love “Sports Song.” I wouldn’t have thought a fight song parody could still sound fresh in 2014, but the technical terminology and general sense of glee make it infectious. Exceeds expectations, as we teachers say.

    The teacher in me also adores “Word Crimes.” This one is my favorite on the new album. And yes, “to the upside of your head” is correct. You get an A for the day, sir. I did love the video’s play on the Robin Thicke video: “Weird Al Yankovic has a big dictionary.” And my heart soared when I caught George Newman’s name in it.

    I like “My Own Eyes,” but I like the Foo Fighters and their general sound. It’s another list of comic premises, but I dig it.

    “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!” is my favorite polka in a while, mainly because I like most of the songs he used in this one. (Becca, who is not usually a fan of the polkas, adored this one; some of her favorite recent songs on it, and she says she wants to hear him just do the entire song “Wrecking Ball” in that style. Weird. Cool, but weird.) I would hate to think of this being the last polka, but it’s a great one to go out on.

    Gosh, just thinking about this as the end of the polkas makes me wistful.

    I was surprised to hear a CSNY style parody. I read somewhere (Tumblr, I think) that Al played it for Graham Nash and he loved it. He gets the sound exactly right. He doesn’t even need to add any jokes, those corporate buzz terms are so stupid on their own. Having worked in places where the managers talk that way, the song really exorcised some of the anger I’ve had since working in corporate retail. Fantastic video, too.

    Imagine Dragons is a surprisingly dull band for having such a great name. Sometimes all current music just sounds like heavy drum machine beats and chanting. Need to do a dramatic rise? Just increase the reverb and make the drum machine beats louder. “Inactive” is alright–some of the lyrics are funny–but I mostly just appreciate that the subject points out how damn dull the original song is.

    “First World Problems” makes me laugh, because I have a tendency to get frustrated and overwhelmed very easily. It’s like looking in a funhouse mirror of myself.

    “Tacky” makes me happier than “Happy” did, and “Happy” made me pretty darn happy. (Come on, it’s basically “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands” with a great beat; plus, someone did a video featuring fans in Star Wars costumes, which is pretty much maximum happy for me.) The video for “Tacky” made me ludicrously happy, too. I just enjoy everything about this. It’s hilarious, but joyful. This, “Word Crimes,” and the polka are my favorites on this one. And, of course, the next one…

    “Jackson Park Express” is this magical sort of wonderful for me, even with the occasionally disturbing lyrics. I just love Cat Stevens. I grew up listening to his music, and Al just nails it. And it has Chicago. I mean, this is just the perfect album-ender for me. “But not in a creepy way” made me laugh really loud all of a sudden, which is the best feeling in the world. I’m just weirdly grateful that he recorded this. It especially reminds me of some of the songs on Cat’s concept album “Numbers” and his 18-minute song “Foreigner Suite.” I feel like I’ve been waiting for this ever since Al aped Harry Chapin’s style way back in ’89.

    I really loved this one. I can’t even explain why entirely. Everything just clicked here for me, and it’s one of the real highlights of this year for me. Thanks for writing this up, my friend. This has been a great journey. I don’t ever really have anyone to talk Al with, much less in so much depth, so this has been really special for me. Sorry if I hijacked the comments a bit much here…

    And I still have Alpocalypse to comment on…

    • Nathan says:

      Yeah, apparently Friends began airing in September 1994.

      Oh, well: I’m 38, it’s not for me. Let the kids have their trash.

      Says the guy who likes Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. :P No, seriously, I think I’m becoming a bit of an old fogey when it comes to music, but that doesn’t mean there’s NO good stuff coming out now. I really don’t like the sound of “Fancy,” yet “Handy” is pretty catchy, so I guess Al’s singing makes a lot of difference. Iggy’s voice is rather grating, I think.

      Maybe Imagine Dragons has that name because it’s what you need to do in order to stay awake through one of their songs? ;) I don’t know that much about them, but yeah, that description fits the song pretty well. It SOUNDS kind of lazy. I don’t pay attention to Billboard charts myself, but according to something I read online, it’s the only song Al parodied on this album that never made number one.

      I don’t ever really have anyone to talk Al with, much less in so much depth, so this has been really special for me. Sorry if I hijacked the comments a bit much here…

      It’s perfectly fine, as I wasn’t sure anyone was going to comment at all.

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  4. Pingback: Mandatory Weirdness | VoVatia

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