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Flight of the Conchords - The Distant Future

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Artist: Flight of the Conchords

Album: The Distant Future

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Sep. 25, 2007

The pairing of musical comedy acts and television series certainly needs no introduction, but perhaps one is required for New Zealand folk-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are its unlikely members – fashionably scruffy Kiwi oddballs, proficient in the home studio environment, blessed with milky voices and a set of goofy, good-natured, yet decidedly adult-oriented songs that have them poised to become the Smothers Brothers of a post-Beck, post-Ween musical omniverse.

With that in mind, the profile that’s been set for these two is as high as it is verbose. Most Americans discovered the group through their summer series on HBO, which despite slimmer ratings than most, is looking at a second season. A study in “country mouse” naïveté, their show chronicled the group’s stillborn adventures as a band in New York City with impeccably dry aplomb, one which requires the role of a fellow Kiwi as manager who’s even more lost in the music business game than the band itself, and a whole lot of padding from the city’s brightest comic hopes (Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman among them).

But take away the elaborate confines of the show, and all you have left is the music and the milquetoast personalities behind it. Any recordings by the aforementioned brothers Smothers, or ’60s favorite Allan Sherman, could rely on topical lyrics and a time-tested approach to get their jokes across. Other outfits, such as the Monkees and the Archies, let the comedy mingle with the music only once in a while, and were content to keep pop on the records and laughs on the TV. On their show, Flight of the Conchords’ music is shoehorned in through dream sequences and filmic interludes. They tend to pad episodes with borrowed musical ideas (“Inner City Pressure,” for example, owes its entire existence to the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls”), as if the guys wrote it in their contracts that they’d get to perform at least one song in every show.

Strip them out of the series, however, as the teaser EP The Distant Future does, and you’re sort of left with the dregs, an earnest yet anemic take on R&B-laced folk escapades. At least the Conchords know their prospective audience well – office drones with an expendable income, plus college students – and pitch most of their material at the easy drudgeries of being in one’s thirties (“Business Time”), or twentysomething nerdery (“Robots”). Three studio selections are followed by three clips from a live club performance, and the drop in quality is jarring; the audience comes out shouting, but by the end, is reduced to polite applause. While the studio material holds up meekly, their in-between live banter is abysmal in that sort of we-know-what-we’re-doing- but-let’s-pretend-like-we-don’t style, even dipping low enough to pull off a sheep-shagging joke, and highlights one of my major problems with comedians willing to take potshots at their backgrounds. I’m not expecting anyone in the mass pay cable audience to be familiar with the rich history of underground music from New Zealand, but Bret and Jemaine are apparently fine with sticking to the few stereotypes anyone might recognize from their homeland: sheep, farming, “Lord of the Rings,” a competition with Australia. There’s no leg up given to their culture to the extent that it’s lampooned in their material, and a relationship with Sub Pop, which precludes that a cross-section of their audience will know from the Chills or the Clean, means that some folks are bound to feel slighted by this exchange.

Maybe some recognition is better than none at all. Maybe their show is successful for a reason – I’ve seen every episode, consider myself a fan of it, and look forward to more. Maybe these guys are geniuses in that regard. But they’ve made a slight, lukewarm record here, one which highlights their weakest mode of expression.

By Doug Mosurock

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