(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Recording review - Tenacious D, Rize of the Fenix (2012)

Going through the motions isn't enough to save the D

The short review (if you want to save some reading) is that Rize of the Fenix has a few decent songs and Tenacious D has expanded their musical approach beyond acoustic metal, but the comedy isn't up to par with their earlier work. In general, it feels like Kyle Gass and Jack Black are going through the motions -- occasionally it clicks but, too often, it misses.

I've been a fan of the D for years. Sure, the humor could be juvenile, but a fun, transgressive comedy flowed out of their balance of real love of metal and satire for the genre. Their first album, Tenacious D, was brilliantly funny and its skits have held up well to repeated listenings. JB and KG could milk a goofy idea like Inward Singing or expand on their characters with Friendship Test and commit so strongly, that the skits still get a chuckle.

Rize of the Fenix only has two skits and neither measures up to their earlier work. Classical Teacher starts out with promise as they discuss how to be the best band in the world. But this leads nowhere except for Black to pretend to be a kinky classical guitar teacher and then reveal himself to Kage.

That's still much better than Flutes and Trombones, which limps on like a failed improv exercise. If this was the best they could come up with, I'm not sure why they bothered. Weaker musical tracks like 39 don't help either. If JB had just improvised these lyrics onstage or in the rehearsal room, it might have been funny enough at the time, but leaving the track in its unpolished state seems like they couldn't be bothered. And Black's huskiest Neil Diamond impression isn't enough to sell it.

Fortunately, there are a couple of stronger tracks to carry the album and remind us what Tenacious D can do. The title cut and The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage catch us up on the Tenacious D mythos. Rize of the Fenix acknowledges the failure of The Pick of Destiny, but asserts that overcoming that obstacle was necessary to prove the band's mettle. The music is hard rocking. The tension builds in a section that borrows from the Who's 5:15 to resolve into soft acoustic sweetness. This trademark interlude give Black the room to worry about their fans if the D can't make it: namely that they'll have to laser off their Tenacious D tattoos. No one wants that on their conscience!

Later, The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage lays out another version of the larger Tenacious D story. In this one, KG descends into jealous insanity while JB succeeds but loses his cred. The alt rock ballad never moves toward a harder metal crunch, but the flute solo adds a sweet layer of pathos. Fortunately, JB comes to his senses and saves KG (and thereby Tenacious D and the rest of us).

My favorite track is Roadie. Over a relentless beat like Bob Seger's Turn the Page, they resurrect Jack Black's roadie character from BrĂ¼tal Legend and lionize the unseen masters that "make the rock go". The lyrical flow meshes with the beat:
Cause the rockers rock, but the roadies roll
Gotta take the mic, I guess I take control
Gotta get that shit up on that fucking stage

Because, the roadie knows what the roadie knows
And the roadie knows that he wears black clothes
And he hides off in the shadows of the stage
Jack Black's delivery is full of the over emoting self-importance that makes this a solid Tenacious D song.
I'm standing at the threshold of your dreams
Without me, there'd be no sound from those amps
Without me, there'd be no lights on the stage
But you don't applaud for me!
If the rest of Rize of the Fenix lived up to this moment, it would have been perfect.

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