By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
"Comedy gets no respect," wrote critic Robert Christgau in a piece about the Coasters, "because it gives none." It's a quip's prerogative to overstate matters, so let's forget that Shakespeare's comedies, to pick one of many examples, get altogether too much respect. It's true at least that in the standard evaluations of rock tastemakers, musicians who double as comedians play third bassoon to musicians with important things to say such as "I am lonely," "I am confused," and "I am both lonely and confused." Pop acts are often, though not often enough, faulted for being humorless, but those too consumed with making people laugh will likely land on the fringes of the exurbs of critical relevance, not far from the full-bore novelty acts. Safest to joke in moderation.
Or acquiesce to the fact that many of your fans will be recent spelling bee champions who acted so excited about getting the Weird Al boxed set for Christmas two years ago because they were, in fact, really excited. Despite the model of cool cats the Coasters and the pioneering geek chic of They Might Be Giants, comical music, like musical comedy, typically doesn't attract the hip, which is another reason critics tend to disrespect it. Rock critics often prattle on about their dork heritage or continued dorkdom, but that's bullshit. First, it's impossible to remain a genuine dork while publicly acknowledging and reveling in the status, and second, rock critics are sellouts who'll give dorks the bum's rush at the first opportunity to align with actual cool people.
A few months ago I got a CD in the mail by Parry Gripp called For Those About to Shop, We Salute You. The album cover is a parody of AC/DC's Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. The sticker on the front of my review copy announces, "From the lead singer of NERF HERDER, featuring Great Nachos, Great Price." I thought that sounded like a total piece of crap. Actually, it's a brilliant piece of crap, a great novelty record, a great rock record, a great record to play at small gatherings of High Times subscribers.
When not playing music, Parry Gripp (that's really his name) helps run the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate, a nursery that's been in the Gripp family since 1967. Such a lifestyle is conducive to happiness, I reckon. In 2003 Gripp retired from Nerf Herder, an irritating, Weezer-y band of alt-rock goofballs that enjoyed some success with novelties such as "Van Halen." "I had discovered that while you never outgrow feeling like a loser or being rejected by all sorts of women," writes the 37-year-old Gripp in the For Those About to Shop liner notes, "you do outgrow the desire to sing about it over and over again every night." Shortly after Nerf Herder's quiet exit, a friend and business associate encouraged Gripp to submit some jingles to an ad agency handling a new kid-targeted line of frozen waffles, pancakes, and French toast packaged with a container of syrup designed for dipping. Gripp fired off a few numbers, including "Do You Like Waffles?" and "Everyone's Dipping," the latter of which distills much of what's good about the Strokes into a 32-second song about breakfast cakes. It's a good, easy trick: The Strokes are excellent craftsmen but dishonest about their superficiality, shy about their stupidity--acknowledging the craft while amplifying the stupidity seems to help.
Gripp's submissions were rejected by the pancake potentates, but he had so much fun writing them that he continued to compose fake jingles and similarly inspired short songs, resulting in the 51-track, 35-minute For Those About to Shop. Like all 51-track single-disc albums, For Those About to Shop is too generous. Maybe 15 of its selections are disposable--actually, all of its selections are disposable; what I mean is that maybe 15 of its selections aren't funny. Not that it matters much. Smartly sequenced with minimal space between tracks, the album is rather like a tennis ball machine, and a few dead balls amidst the fusillade are no great inconvenience. Tennis, by the way, is the subject of track seven, the rocking "Time for Tennis," which finds an ounce of new life in the classic pun involving sporting spheres and the foremost vulgarism for testicles, but is inferior to "Golf Is Groovy," a psychedelic exploration of the athletic world's least psychedelic major game.
All but five of the album's songs are divided into nine categories, including "Songs About Waffles," "Songs About Food Other Than Waffles," "Songs About Sports," and "Songs About Trucks." In the latter category, the standout is the Young MC-inspired "Nice Motherf@#!*&g Truck," artlessly and hilariously edited for radio by replacing the frequent F-words with dead air. For whatever reason, Gripp employs a hillbilly accent for most of his funk and hip-hop parodies, which won't but should augur a Cowboy Troy/Parry Gripp double bill.
Though it is indeed novel in that it's not quite like any album I know of, For Those About to Shop belongs to several pop traditions of varied nobility: satirical jingles by legitimate rock artists, such as those found on The Who Sell Out; actual jingles written for hire by legitimate rock artists, such as the Shadows of Knight's "Potato Chip," arguably the group's finest hour; hybrids such as Ted Hawkins's "T.W.A.," ad copy disarmingly sung with the same amount of conviction the singer summoned for songs of love and heartbreak; album-length collections of short songs, such as the Residents' not terribly rewarding Commercial Music; Weird Al, Spi¨nal Tap, and their antecedents and followers; and short songs partly "about" their brevity but not explicitly related to jingles and typically surrounded by songs of normal duration, including works by the Beatles, Guided By Voices, and especially dial-a-songsters They Might Be Giants, whose 21-song "Fingertips" suite from Apollo 18 is a paragon of supereconomy.
Some of the efforts cited above have been faulted for being merely fragmentary, the missed opportunities of the too lazy to finish. But DJs, sampling technicians, and other postmodernists have proven that many songs are best reduced to fragments. In the post-sampling era, it's perhaps surprising that more songwriters haven't explored beginning with the condensed version--especially those visited often by pleasant little tunes. Gripp seems to be the sort of person for whom writing logical, unassuming melodies is not much more difficult than separating plastic from glass before setting out the recycling. (Not that all these tunes are throwaways--the melodies found in "Life's Too Short" [to miss out on a big sale] and "You Need Our Cold Medicine" could surely support more ambitious songs.) These songs were clearly written and recorded quickly, with whatever was at hand, which is part of what gives the album its energy. When a "new" melody doesn't show its face, Gripp steals one, either in the interest of parodic tribute or apropos of nothing, as on "One Donut a Day," which takes its bridge from "Singing in the Rain."
The utilitarian argument against comedy records is that, like food and most suspense novels, they are poor multiple-use items. Perhaps. I'm trying not to oversell this record. Let it be clear that it is sometimes cringe-coaxingly stupid--part of its power--and that those intolerant of goofiness and uninterested in hearing what is now the second-best Styx song of all time ("Drinkin' [on] a Beer with My Lady") should give it a wide berth. I'm convinced that the pleasures to be found on For Those About to Shop are more than ephemeral, but surely they're periodic. Having binged on the record for a few weeks, I'm about ready to retire it for a few months. Still, For Those About to Shop is an inspired piece of work. ("Renegade," by the way, is the best Styx song of all time.) It is in fact giddy with inspiration, the outpourings of a songwriter proudly oblivious to his medium's typical productivity drains--My song must be meaningful, genuine, original, affecting, etc., but if it is none of those things, it should at least last longer than two minutes. Hard to say why that obliviousness worked. I have not spent much time with the Nerf Herder oeuvre on the grounds that what I have heard seemed juvenile and pointless, and now I'm smitten with their leader's solo debut on the grounds that it is juvenile and pointless and wonderful. An argument against retirement, perhaps. His retirement, that is.
And now I must go. Strangely, I have a hankering for dip-appropriate frozen waffles.