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Where Conchords soar
New Zealand act joins and alters tradition of musical comedy duos
By Michael Corcoran
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
The first rule of the comic song duo format is that you've got to be musically in the same league of the artists you're emulating. You can't parody what you can't play, and so the Smothers Brothers could hold their own with the Kingston Trio and Tenacious D made real heavy metal with just a pair of acoustic guitars and a singer possessed by Dio.
Even the hayseed 1950s and '60s music comedy duo Homer and Jethro were outstanding jazz pickers when they weren't spoofing pop and country hits.
Though Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords aren't going to bust out any virtuoso classical guitar runs Thursday at Bass Concert Hall, they certainly write and sing pop songs as bright and catchy as anything on the charts. But an honest slice of slinky soul such as 'The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room),' with its message of 'you underwhelm me,' isn't going to be climbing Mount Billboard. Nor is the subtly
hilarious male/ female role-flipping "A Kiss Is Not a Contract" or "Carol Brown," in which Clement's 50 lovers
leave him according to their names: Tiffany had an epiphany, for instance.
One of the newer songs, the apology to dissed gangsta rappers called "Hurt Feelings," is not aimed at urban radio, though you can bet it cracks up Snoop Dogg. This duo plays for laughs, not spins. And their reward is a string of sold-out concert halls all over the world.
It should be pointed out here that Sonny & Cher are excluded from this musical comedy duo clique because they had real big hits with songs that were serious ("Bang Bang") and sentimental ("I Got You Babe"). They did short guy jokes on the side. Also, we can't put Flo & Eddie in this group because they were backed by a band
. A true duo doesn't need anyone else, though on this tour the Conchords include a guest cellist on a couple songs. (Too bad TV show highlights Murray the optimistic manager and Mel the stalker fan won't make appearances.)
Clement and McKenzie are different than their predecessors in the musical stop-'n'-chat club in that there's no straight man: They're both Tommy Smothers.
They've also become unlikely sex symbols, the Mick Jagger (Clement) and John Mayer (sorry, McKenzie) of songs that poke fun of the usual macho rock stance while also trying to pull it off.
I have to admit that I resisted FOTC, as their growing cult of fanatics know them, because there's usually room for only one satirical musical duo per decade, and the body of Tenacious D was still warm when FOTC got the HBO show in 2007. I just wasn't hungry for more song patter song for a while.
But FOTC brings freshness to the format. When the former roommates at Victoria University in their native New Zealand played at South by Southwest in 2006 they brought a new style â€” sincere, puppy dog cluelessness â€” to the subgenre. As seen in the documentary "Flight of the Conchords: A Texan Odyssey" (search YouTube for it), the duo comes out at their showcase to wild applause. "Not so loud," one of them says. "Make it more realistic" says the other.
The hit HBO show, which just wrapped up season two, follows the deadpan denial of "New Zealand's fourth most popular musical comedy duo" trying to make it in the Big Apple only to be relegated to imitating Simon & Garfunkel in downstairs dives. Meanwhile, the real-life Clement and McKenzie are currently selling out 2,000-5,000 capacity venues with ironic ease.
Here's where the musical chops come in. In honor of Homer & Jethro and all the other comedy musical duos who were snubbed from playing splendid concert halls because they were considered lowbrow, Flight of the Conchords will fill Bass with songs and comedy that could each stand on their own. Together, however, they bring out screams of "We love you!" (multiplied by the power of two) from an adoring crowd.