Thursday, July 17, 2014

Music Review: "Weird Al" Yankovic: Mandatory Fun

Disclaimer: Don't expect a series of music reviews from me now. This will be a once in a great while thing. Only if I really have a lot to say about an album. I'm not a music buff like I am with games and movies.

Version I Heard: CD copy of album. Vinyl to be released next month. Don't plan on getting that, though.

History: The first mention of this album came up around the end of his Alpocalypse tour. In an interview he referenced he had one more album left on his contract with his current publisher. While some confused this thinking he was saying it would be his last album it couldn't be farther from the truth. He did state it may be the last of his conventional albums. Moving toward singles and EPs in the future since a lot of material can/will be outdated by the time an entire album is completed.
Due to this 'aging issue' Al decided to parody the styles, not the songs but styles, of some older acts. Including Cat Stevens and Foo Fighters, while still sticking to modern song parodies like he always does. Of course a lot of curiosity and speculation came up with what he would parody, including the massive hit "Let It Go" from Frozen. Al decided it already got enough attention with youtube parodies so he passed on it.
Recording started as early as fall 2012 and as songs/parodies developed eventually completed spring 2014. The album was released on July 15th, a mere couple days before writing this review. So far it has received mostly positive reviews and is currently the #1 selling album on iTunes. During the first week of release Al is also releasing eight music videos connected to this CD. All of which have been big hits so far with five left to release.

Personal History: My history with "Weird Al" is extensive. I became a hardcore fan with the release of Running With Scissors in the late 90s. Before then I wasn't listening out of a sheer lack of knowledge he existed. Since then I've collected all his studio albums and most of the compilations including the now rare Al in the Box four disc set. I've seen him in concert seven times with the hopes of getting that to double digits in the coming years. I've seen his movie UHF over one hundred times (not kidding) and can almost quote the movie word for word. And the last info I'll give here and now is I have The Authorized Al. A book published in the 80s that was given to me many years ago. Go on eBay and you'll see it's one of the rarest and most valuable Al items.

Seriously! Go to eBay, Amazon, whatever.

In terms of personal history with Mandatory Fun, I did everything I could to avoid 'spoilers' before picking up the CD. At least 1/3rd of the songs on Alpocalypse were released ahead of time via his digital EP 'Internet Leaks' and it spoiled the fun a bit when I bought the full album. I wanted this one to be 100% fresh from the moment I opened the packaging.

Review: That time has finally come again. Every three to four years in recent history "Weird Al" has been releasing new material. Since I first got into his music after Running With Scissors was released this is technically only the fourth time I've picked up his new album day one. None the less it's not how long you've been a fan it's all about how passionate a fan one is. And I have the embodiment of a fan whose been listening since he first released "My Bologna" on Dr Demento's radio show.

There was one downside before I put the CD in I haven't experienced since first becoming a fan. Since I've been out of social loops and haven't listened to local radio stations since his last album came out my familiarity with the originals he's parodying was slim. Very slim. In a way I felt like I was picking up one of his much older albums that had parodies of music from way before my time. Not that I was gonna let that get me down. You don't have to know the original to find the parody fun. That's a sign of a good comedic musician. Someone who can make you fall in love with their joke version of the song without knowing the original. Once again Al did it for me because there are some great tracks here without me knowing the originals that well.

Now to the people who think all Al does are parodies you clearly don't know what you're talking about. Look at any album he's done and you'll see it's 50/50. Part parody part original material. The songs he chose to parody here include:
-Fancy by Iggy Azalea
-Royals by Lorde
-Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke
-Radioactive by Imagine Dragons
-Happy by Pharrell
-And a medley of popular songs set to polka music like he usually does.

Typically I like the parodies more than the original material. In this case, maybe it was the lack of familiarity, maybe it was him stepping up in the originals, but it was a mixed bag this time around between the two. All while only being really familiar with Happy and a few songs in the polka.
First track, Handy (parody of Fancy) was fun and catchy. He made it about being good at fixing things up. A predictable approach but Al has a way of knowing how to make it fun. I makes me smile, again without knowing the original material. Then of course there's Tacky (parody of Happy) which will likely be the most popular title of the album. Easy to see why since, like Handy, it's a great and clever track done in a typical Al fashion where you don't need to know the original. Reminds me of when White and Nerdy became far more popular than Ridin' Dirty was ever going to be. And while I did enjoy Word Crimes (parody of Blurred Lines) I've got some irrelevant comments to make about it. Which I'll bring up later on.

Now for the originals Al does a different kind of parody. In recent years they haven't been just goofy songs. They've been style parodies. So while he did a song in the style of, for example, Rage Against the Machine on Straight Outta Lynwood, he didn't parody a specific song. On Mandatory Fun he did style parodies of:
-Southern Culture on the Skids
-Foo Fighters
-Crosby, Stills & Nash
-Cat Stevens
-And college football fight songs.

These can be both more and less approachable. On one hand you don't have to rely on a specific song. You can let the song take you as is. On the other hand some of these rely on the style for the joke. So if you don't understand why he chose that style or aren't familiar enough with it, it may not work as well.
Let's be positive first, we'll get to the negatives later. Some of my favorite tracks came from this section of the CD. I really liked all the originals except Mission Statement (Crosby, Stills & Nash style) but we'll get to that later. Overall I felt the quality and production of his originals stood out. While I don't feel Lame Claim to Fame (Southern Culture on the Skids) or My Own Eyes (Foo Fighters) were exceptionally written lyrics I felt the overall quality of the track's music amplified it to a very enjoyable level. Whereas in the past his originals didn't quite stand up to the parodies music-wise.
My absolute favorite of these was Sports Song, done in the style of a college football fight song. He went all out giving it that big band feel. The tune is catchy and the lyrics are fun. Essentially boiling down every college football song into one simple term saying, "We're great and you suck!" This one I enjoy listening to the most despite a couple hiccups here and there. Easily my number one pick. And next time I'm at a sporting event I'll try to sing it at some point. At least the "We're great and you suck!" section.

And of course I need to touch on the polka. Or as it's called on the album NOW That's What I Call Polka! Cracking an outdated joke in the process.
Al has been making polkas since his second album wherein he uses lyrics from popular music and literally makes them into a polka. He hasn't done it on every album but has for most of his recent ones. Always fun and exciting to see what he does with it and this is no exception.
The songs he chose this time around are:
-Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus
-Pumped Up Kids by Foster the People
-Best Song Ever by One Direction
-Gangnam Style by Psy
-Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen
-Scream & Shout by
-Somebody That I Used to Know by Gotye
-Timber by Pitbull
-Sexy and I Know It by LMFAO
-Thrift Shop by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
-Get Lucky by Daft Punk

It's really hard to judge the polkas since they're all so similar. And really how can you screw up a polka? He typically uses already established polka tunes along with new ones he writes himself. All he has to do is think of a fun and creative way to integrate the lyrics.
While I overall enjoyed this polka I found it to be a step back. Felt a little more like some of his earlier polkas when he was still trying to figure the best way to put them together. The jump from song to song doesn't flow as well as before. Hard to do considering Polka Face on Alpocalypse is without a doubt one of the best polkas he's ever put together.
Certainly not a bad polka. Just not quite up to par in my book when compared to the others. If anything it's one of my favorite tracks on this album.

And that bit of negativity brings me to my negative thoughts on the album.

In the past I've felt when Al parodies a song he should stick as close to the source style as possible. Singing funny lyrics over a popular tune sometimes isn't enough to make it the best it can be. Sometimes I felt he either didn't put enough toward getting the style of the song he was parodying down or he simple wasn't capable. One thing I will say is this album has to be some of his best work with sticking with the source material's style. Sadly I'm learning the monkey paw effect of that wish, though.

Take Inactive for example (Radioactive parody.) Imagine Dragons clearly has a unique style that Al had to mimic. However in mimicking that style it made the song not as enjoyable. The (high quality) music accompanying the new lyrics overpower said lyrics to the point of nearly inaudible. If it weren't for the title of the song I may not know it was a song about laziness. I felt I had to work hard to listen for the joke when in comedy songs that shouldn't have to happen.
Then there's Mission Statement. A song I just plain didn't care for. Unlike Inactive, Mission Statement could be understood. Only it's a little too slow for a comedy song as it feels like it drags the one joke on way too long. It reminds me of Craigslist from Alpocalypse. I get the style parody of the song, I get the jokes within the song, I just don't like the outcome. A shame because a song about the mission statement of a big corporation set to music is an awesome idea in my head.
Lastly there's the issue every hardcore Al fan faces. The mainstream obsessions...

While this can be true for any fan of any band or singer this is amplified for Al fans because they're jokes. Every time a new Al CD comes out there's usually one, maybe two songs that hit the radio/mainstreams and becomes something of a hit. Only problem is that then that's the only song anyone seems to know at that time, causing an otherwise obscured artist resurrected every few years to be overplayed. Making even the hardest of hardcore fans annoyed by otherwise great songs. This happened with Amish Paradise, White & Nerdy, and it's bound to happen again here.
Originally I thought the big parody would be Tacky (Happy parody) and it may very well be. I feel it's the most recognizable with one of the most mainstream concepts. Harking back to White & Nerdy. Not to mention Tacky is a fun, catchy song that I (currently) enjoy. However since I come from a world of nerds it should come at no surprise the hit (I shockingly didn't expect) is Word Crimes (Blurred Lines parody.) I've seen so many re-posts of that song already on Facebook and considering a lot of the people I know it won't be the last of them. I'm just glad I'm not in college anymore so I don't have to hear obsessions over the song again and again.
This isn't a "I don't like it because it's popular" mindset. I did enjoy it the first couple times around. I just clearly didn't see it as the finding of the holy grail many others saw it as. I do think it's a clever, well written song. Still annoyed because of the obsessive reactions some can have. So yes one of my complaints is what people are gonna do with the song like they did with White & Nerdy. Annoy the hell outta me where I won't want to revisit it until the annoyances have died down.

My brain works different than most.

Really there are more hits than misses. Definitely a worthy addition to Al's discography. Too bad I haven't been as in touch with the music industry the last few years. I feel that hurt my enjoyment to a point. None the less like when I first discovered Al's music from the 80s I didn't know the parodies but still loved and appreciated them.
I don't want to rank the songs yet. Music and I have a strange relationship. While I really enjoyed Straight Outta Lynwood at release it has since become one of my least favorite Al CDs, despite having one of my all time favorite all songs on it. More recently I wasn't crazy about Perform This Way (Born This Way parody) from Alpocalypse I now adore it more than most tracks on that CD. So take this review of Mandatory Fun as a first impression. Numerous runs will determine what I really think of it.

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