By Jon Niccum
Straddling the conceptual fence between novelty album and timeless parody lies the debut effort by Tenacious D. Originally conceived as the basis for an HBO comedy series in 1999, the "band" is the brainchild of actors/musicians Jack Black and Kyle Gass -- two of the most unlikely rock stars to strap on six-strings.
The wild-eyed Black is best known for his turns in the films "High Infidelity" and the upcoming comedy "Shallow Hal." The bald Gass has appeared in several movie cameos but is most significant for being the less talkative foil of this musical act. The joke is that the two acoustic players are deadly serious that their music is the very definition of rock, and they berate and mock all those who can't perceive their rightful glory -- or something like that. Add in the improbable visual element of the duo being squat, overweight guys, and it's easy to see why they've attained a cult status among audiences.
Tenacious D resides in the Spinal Tapian world that covets and embraces all the trappings of stadium stardom because that's what you're SUPPOSED to do. Thus, the pair's self-titled album cover is an exaggerated heavy metal spoof that shows them naked except for their acoustics, chained to a post upon which sits a towering, bat-winged, goat-horned demon. The image is so ridiculous that it's almost beyond caricature -- yet apparently not enough for the many retail outlets that have refused to carry the CD. The first pressing sold out immediately at the few record stores that initially accepted it (just try and find a copy anywhere around town), but a new disc featuring more understated artwork will be available by the end of this week.
While the cover is more silly than shocking, the songs contained within are genuinely offensive. The bloated couple delves into all kinds of sexual topics ("Kielbasa," "Double Team") for its song inspirations. There's also a run on the F-word to rival any hardcore hip-hop project (Black proves capable of using the expletive as a noun, verb and adjective within the same lyrical phrase). Admittedly, it's the least interesting aspect of Tenacious D, and certainly the one thing about the bizarre duo's shtick that seems the most predictably juvenile.
When the boys do employ the oddball, sanctimonious attack that exemplifies their best work, they strike nothing short of comedy gold. The track "Tribute" is the type of high-concept effort that only Tenacious D could create. The tune exploits the story-style of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," revealing Black and Gass' experience with a "shiny demon" who claims it will eat their souls unless they perform the best song in the world.
"And we played the first thing that came to our heads/Just so happened to be the best song in the world," the lyrics explain.
Only most groups would pretend that the composition they were singing was literally that best song. Not D. "And the peculiar thing is this, my friends," Black speaks. "The song we sang on that fateful night, it didn't actually sound anything like this song."
"This is not the greatest song in the world, no/This is just a tribute/Couldn't remember the greatest song in the world."
Other standouts include "Dio," an homage to histrionic Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio. Black's own distinct, mighty voice is perfectly suited to delivering the lines, "It's time to pass the torch/You're too old to rock/No more rockin' for you/We're taking you to a home/But we will sing a song about you."
The band (supposedly named for a description by sportscaster Marv Alpert regarding the tenacious defense at a Knicks basketball game) does indeed rock. It helps that the members' circle of friends include ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who provides many of the pummeling backing rhythms. Electric guitars, sitars and a hilariously inappropriate string section bolster the acoustic instrumentation.
The rest of the record's 21 cuts are broken up with brief conversational comedy bits supplied by Black and Gass. Feeling loosely improvised, these selections are surprisingly uneven. Some, such as "Karate Schnitzel" and "Friendship Test," are simply worthless. The most successful of sketches is "Drive-Thru," which is an exchange between Black and the poor sap (who is distorted like an adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon) taking his demanding order at a fast-food window.
Unfortunately, much of the lyrics throughout the record are as unintelligible as the fake drive-thru clerk. (It doesn't help that the CD booklet comes without printed words.) The layered production of The Dust Brothers and mix by ex-Failure frontman Ken Andrews often fails to boost the vocals out front where they need to be -- "Double Team" and "Lee" especially suffer. It's clear that Tenacious D wants to both rock-out and parody rocking out at the same time. But it's more difficult to do that when the music obscures the message.
-- Mag editor Jon Niccum can be reached at 832-7178.