clap clap blog: we have moved

Wednesday, February 04, 2004
A while back someone on a mailing list asked for recommendations on recent music. I sent back a list which included the Strong Bad Sings and Other Type Hits CD. A response came back to the effect of: I like HSR as much as the next guy, but are you really going to listen to that more than once?

To which I had to reply: how can you not listen to it more than once?! Aside from the fact that it's really funny and good, little bits will get stuck in your head and you'll HAVE to listen to it again or you'll just have lines running through your brain all day, like "oh there's The Cheat in the place where the tropical breezes blow..."

The obvious comparison here is the first Cartoon Planet album (note to uncareful readers: no, not the first Phantom Planet album, the first Cartoon Planet album, i.e. Space Ghost). This, indeed, stands as the pinnacle of cartoon soundtracks, being quite simply one of the funniest things ever. It's the best comedy album of the 90's, and probably in my personal top 20; it's given more pure pleasure per person than anything besides your own genitals, as far as I can tell. "Don't Touch Me" is, quite simply, perfect; it's one of those things that is so good that I have a hard time talking about it.

So given that this is the gold standard, how does Strong Bad Sings (or SBS cause I'm lazy) compare? Well, at first, not so good. There's no grabber as immediate as "I Like Beans" or any of the other standouts of the Space Ghost CD, and by and large the metal pastiches, from fake bands Limozeen and Tarantula, are just annoying. (They get slightly less annoying over time, but only slightly, although I do appreciate the GnR reference that leads off "Nite Mamas.") There's really not a lot of immediately grabby, funny lines, which is mainly what you're listening for with these sorts of CDs; near the end, song-with-commentary "Sensitive to Bees" and more straightly narrative "Theme From Dangeresque 2" get in a few good ones ("The mighty oak has fallen / if movies have taught me anything, he'll get the girl"), but by and large it seems to be lacking in the kind of absolutely mind-blowing hilarious lines that are common coin on the main homestarrunner site. (About which I won't say much here since you're probably already familiar, but trust me on this, if you're not, it's well worth your time. Especially Teen Girl Squad.)

But what hooks you is, well, the hooks: the damn thing is one of the catchiest collections of songs I've ever heard, and holy crap, they get stuck in your head. Really, really stuck. And so, somewhat by force, you revisit it, and then you realize that these guys can really write a pop song. They write some of fucking poppiest, most addictive stuff you've ever heard, regardless of the content of the lyrics. (But not regardless of the lyrics themselves, which are hooky, too.) What the album shares with the website, aside from various characters and voices and references, is the presentation of seemingly tossed-off writing in a way that's clearly had a good bit of effort and thought put into it. In the case of the website, that turns out to be skits with grammar and pronunciation errors proudly left in animated in a very precise and pleasing style. In the case of the album, it's songs whose lyrics seem to be improvised on the spot over very good, very straightforward (in some cases) production. This stands in marked contrast to the Space Ghost CDs, which sport admittedly charming but clearly half-assed MIDI-ized backing tracks.

The songs are so good, in fact, that they achieve that magic alchemy: they're very specific parodies that are so good that they could pass for slightly silly (or, in some cases, severely truncated) entries in certain genres. "Let's Get Started On Doing All Those Awesome Things I Suggested," for instance, is a dead-on imitation of a slow-jam featuring an extended Strong Bad intro monologue that then flows into one maddeningly short, exhilarating recitation of half of the title phrase before the song abruptly cuts off. "Oh Yeah Yeah" sounds very convincingly like a high school girl-punk band that just learned to play their instruments, and is as exciting as a lot of instances of said genre. And "The Cheat is Not Dead," a nearly perfect track upon closer examination, is a dead-on approximation of white Casiocore gospel--yes, an entire new genre--that really, actually rocks, growing from the kind of tinny keyboard arrangement you might be used to from the site to a full-chorus rave-up. Now, admittedly I might be biased on this one due to a) my love of Strong Sad, who gets in a line, and b) the presence of the line "just the claps!" but regardless, it's an absolutely wonderful artifact. The way it takes a pretty much unexplained concept to a logical place in much the same way many pop songs too, the singer's seemingly honest amazement at finding a choir joining in, the way the organ and drums and whacka-whacka guitar all nails it at the end--all of this just does it in the same way, say, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" does. Honestly. And it's funny, too--as Miss Clap pointed out, what it does, as the album itself does constantly, is take all the little pop song touches that get taken for granted and point them out, to great effect.

Probably the most mind-blowing-upon-further-inspection track, though, is "Everybody To the Limit (Live)." The song itself had already appeared in full on the website, billed as a "#1 Summer Jam!" and, amazingly, kind of living up to that billing; for a bit of twee weirdness, it was amazingly enjoyable. But what the album version does is something that I really can't think of anyone else even thinking of doing: parodying, in a stunningly accurate way, live tracks. (I suspect it's a fairly specific reference to "Frampton Comes Alive," but I could be wrong.) What's so incredible about it is that it parodies elements of live tracks that you yourself wouldn't even have been aware of as cliched before you heard this, but there they are: the crowd-rousing vocoder opening, the keyboard part obscuring the melody and a bassline that mainly serves to elongate the groove, the call-out of the breakdown (integrated into the lyrics) into the breakdown, the audience call-out during the breakdown encouraging them to be loud, the audience sing-along on a rising and falling fifths version of one line from the chorus (the rising and falling fifths thing making it easier to sing along, since it's likely that you'll hit some note in that range), the reduction of the band part during the breakdown, the band comein with the audience cutting out and cheering, the call-and-response over the beat at the end, the lead singer leaving before the band is done. And what's especially amazing is that this is all done in service of a song that's never been played live and, even if it was, would never garner this size of an audience, but it's engineered in such a way that it's remarkably convincing. Some indie band should do this.

And, of course, once you're drawn in you start to notice the lyrics more, and they really do resonate, although more with their weirdness than their gaggery. There's a whole bunch of great stuff in college-folk pastiche "Circles" ("...something about the ages..."), a whole host of wonderfulness in the Strong Badia National Anthem (Miss Clap is particularly fond of "and the ones are always cold," although I also like "there's probably lots of chocolate"), and the sheer oddity of shuffle-dance Teen Girl Squad yeller "I Think I Have a Chance With This Guy." It's really quite impressive. And this isn't even getting into the amazing hidden track, "Secret Song," which I'm pretty sure is, besides a parody of hidden tracks, a reference to Tori Amos' Boys For Pele closer "Twinkle," although I might just be making that up; nevertheless, it's a great track.

So, in sum, if you like Musical Barbeque, you'll probably like this, and if you don't like Musical Barbeque, well, I'm not so sure I want you reading this blog, quite frankly. No, just kidding, come back! But do listen to "I Like Beans" again. And then listen to "The Cheat is Not Dead."