Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Poodle Hat" by "Weird Al" Yankovic

I'm going to describe this album as 'Transitional Al' because it's somewhere between his original style and his slightly, but nonetheless distinctly, modern style. We have traditional themes of his as well as some new ones. Perhaps for this reason I'm not a huge fan of 'Poodle Hat,' but at the same time no Al album whatsoever is in any sense a write-off. This album was, however, released at a time when rap and a form of 'hip hop' were at a high point of popularity and exposure in the media. This isn't music which interests me very much, which might reflect my opinion of the album.

Couch Potato
This song's a mixed bag because it's a traditional Al theme and style - TV lyrics, listing stuff - but it's also a parody of a rap song which screams 'early 2000s.' It's very much in the same space as 'The Brady Bunch,' 'I Can't Watch This' and 'Syndicated Inc.' Favourite lines include mooted program titles like "Touched by an Uncle," a surprisingly off-colour gag for Al, and the rather cutting "Everybody Tolerates Raymond." The line about TiVo thinking he's gay for watching Will and Grace is either Al satirising the casual homophobia of the average TV viewer or is itself a vaguely unfortunate cheap gay joke. It surprises me to observe that the concept of 'HD Ready' existed in 2003. Eminem wouldn't let Al make a music video for this song, which I've always found to be a somewhat hubristic decision. Once again, Al is still around while as far as I'm aware no one gives a shit about Eminem any more unless he's on tour so I always feel like artists who say no to Al are basically killing one of their own chances at a little bit more longevity. The most effective element of the parody is the development of a trend in the more recent albums of turning 'edgy' music turned completely mainstream by industry exposure, marketing and hype into a composition where the lyrics actually match the culture which has absorbed the original track: the extremely non-edgy lives of the majority of consumers. I know I'm really ramming this home lately but I think it's one of Al's most overlooked and yet effective devices.

Supposedly there is a fascination which exists throughout the world and is well-recognised in the US with power tools, hardware, DIY and the actual hardware store itself, which some (weasel words ahoy) have apparently argued is a kind of temple of the creative side of consumerism. Anyway, as a result this satirical number works as two types of Al song: it contains a big list and it's also a narrative about one person's slightly extreme behaviour. Specifically, it's about a guy who's really excited about the big new hardware store in his town. It's perhaps not entirely unlike 'Frank's 2000" TV' in terms of its theme. The funniest part of the song is of course Al's immense rapid fire catalogue of the store's inventory. This includes "automatic circumcisers,"  but personally I find the final item, "matching salt and pepper shakers," most amusing for its sheer mundanity. This is a good example of a "sing along if you know the words" Al song and is probably one of the strongest items on Poodle Hat.

Trash Day
Here's a comedy staple Al doesn't do so much: "gross stuff." The only comparable song really is probably 'Livin' In The Fridge' from his published work, although some off-record material like 'You Don't Take Your Showers Anymore' from way back shows that it's been on his mind for a while. 'Gotta Boogie' might also count. I guess it's occasionally possible to see why Al might be perceived by some derogatory types as having a rather childish sense of humour, but this kind of thing is a rarity. The original song was vastly overplayed in its day, and I actually heard it playing in a shop just the other day, over a decade after the fact, so I probably find this parody a little difficult at times to mentally distinguish from the original. I consider the original to be quite crap, which unfortunately doesn't endear the parody a great deal. Sometimes I think even Al's lyrics and voice can't entirely redeem the kind of garbage that the parody ends up being about. It's an exaggerated scenario, but one with which I'm sure many of us are familiar: letting a rather unseemly amount of garbage accumulate in the house. A select line might be "It's so bad the roaches wearin' slippers," which is Al at his whimsical finest. Other noteworthy ones include the contrast of "better get a hazmat suit and a push-broom," although the most clever is probably "it gives me stuff to talk about with my friends." It's a neat little insight into why we sometimes do strange things: so that we can self-deprecatingly discuss them later. The singer rather unfairly suggesting that his lady partner ought to help him clean up his mess, and then pretending it was a joke, is an amusing nod towards social satire of traditional household roles and responsibilities. Still, the original track is a bit tedious, which limits the appeal of this one.

Party At The Leper Colony
For some reason this is what my mind leaps to when I think of 'Poodle Hat' and probably informs my less than favourable opinion, because it's basically just a bunch of puns and cliché jokes about leprosy. Most of them, like the idea that leprosy makes your bits fall off, aren't even true. The saxophone solo reminds me of 80s original non-parody Al, and musically it's a real melting pot of rockabilly, old-school proper rhythm and blues and jazz styles that I feel are a bit wasted on the lyrics. I feel like bad jokes were being prioritised over the music, and I find that a bit off putting. Maybe that's the point, but then again this is probably the most harsh I'll ever be about Al.

Angry White Boy Polka
This is the era of me only recognising songs in the polka because I may have overheard other kids at school singing them in the corridors. Having been indoctrinated in a household where contemporary popular music was frowned upon through a mindless but arguably justifiable nostalgic snobbery I was not exactly familiar with many of the tunes in this polka then and a lot of them are still alien to me now, experienced only as accelerated fragments performed by Al on the accordion. For what I do know, it only goes to show that polka vastly improves many compositions, and I'm inclined to argue that it might be especially true in this case. Reversing the normal aspect of parodies, the polkas, and this one in particular, instead pull the rug out from under the lyrics, showing that a lot of these pieces are pretty meaningless when divorced from their dour and pompous instrumentation.

Wanna B UR Lovr
This is another example of the Al "self love" song where a romantic or "sexy" style is turned into something ultimately self-aggrandising, narcissistic or simply ridiculous. I thought this was a style parody of Prince but apparently it's more Al parodying some guy I've never heard of called Beck trying to sound like Prince. Prince, in addition to being completely loopy, has never let Al parody his stuff so maybe a direct style parody was considered to be off the cards too. As the main conceit is a string of cheesy, trite and increasingly bizarre chat-up lines, it lampoons the overcompensating, insecure botherer of women with entertaining relish. Select lines include the surely doomed "Your eyes are even bluer than the water in my toilet," and the amusingly corny but kind of endearing "How'd you get through security? 'Cause baby, you're the bomb." The actual innuendoes, such as "love torpedo," are surprisingly direct for Al. I'm curious about the "stupid" remark "You've got Yugoslavian hands." Did Al just consider "Yugoslavia" to be an arbitrary "weird sounding place" or is it a subtle dig at people who would think Yugoslavia was just some "weird sounding place"? Interestingly, Yugoslavia ceased to exist in the same year this album was released: what remained of the 20th century country was renamed as Serbia and Montenegro - which are themselves now two separate countries. Anyway, there are a few good backhanded compliments too, like "Don't speak now, you might spoil it" and "That would explain how you messed up your face." My favourite line, however, is the final one: "I'd like to take you home right now so you can meet my mom." That's the kind of thing at which Al excels. This one's a little slow to get going, but it's one of the strongest tracks on the album in my view once the humour gets into full swing.

A Complicated Song
I once saw a YouTube comment where some guy was raging against what he called 'Small Weird Al fans' who thought that this song was called 'Constipated' - it is uploaded by that title several times, I believe. Lo, a personal joke was born. I guess I can kind of appreciate it when short attention spans and fly-by-night-ery can lead to misinformation being perpetuated about something you like. At any rate, this is one of the album's great instalments, featuring as it does a cornucopia of humorous subjects: constipation, accidental incest and notionally lethal but somehow survivable injury. I think the best part is the one about decapitation, largely because for some reason the lyrics are written from the 'point of view' such as it is of the body, and not the head, but also the fact that it's such a cartoonish depiction of violence. I'm sure many of us can relate to the issue of eating too much cheap pizza as well, which is what makes the other two more outlandish scenarios so much more funny. At the same time, however, toilet humour is always good for a laugh. This is the second song in as many albums where Al mentions colonic irrigation. It's worth keeping an ear open if one ever sees Al perform this live, as he tends to swap in wherever the local "hillbilly" or "redneck" region is for Alabama in whichever country he's performing at the time. The two best lines in my view are probably the description of fighting constipation as having to "feel the pain," and, above all, the line: "the guide/Said not to stand/But that's a demand/That I couldn't meet." Making such a phrase fit the metre as well as contrast the outlandish situation is top notch Weird Al humour.

Why Does This Always Happen To Me?
This too feels like very traditional Al humour: it's a guy's unbelievably petty, selfish complaints when something horrible happens, the last of which is in fact caused by him in a massive overreaction. It's kind of like the opposite of 'One Of Those Days' from Polka Party. There it's reacting in a really blasé manner to increasingly terrible disasters, here it's getting really frustrated about some really minor problem (albeit caused by a disaster). Weirdly in this song Al has an opportunity to use one of his favourite phrases, 'internal organs,' but instead he opts for 'vital organs.' I wonder what people think of the lyrics about the earthquake, because there have been far too many disastrous earthquakes in recent memory and it might seem a bit on the nose for some, although of course the song is mocking the complaints of Western people's luxury in a way that foreshadows 'First World Problems.' The cleverest part of the whole thing is the build up, from complaining about a disaster in another country, to a disaster that affects him personally, to actually causing the harm himself and revealing that he's not just callous, he's a crazy person. The best line is probably "So I turned around and stabbed him in the face," although "He still owes me money, what a jerk/That's five bucks that I'm ever gonna see again," is proper Al, evoked again in 'Ringtone.' It's one of the strongest songs on the album, I would argue. It's interesting that both this track and the one before revolve around an escalating three-part joke structure.

Ode To A Superhero
Here's another one that makes Poodle Hat a very 'transitional' album, because this must be the most recent Al track that is based around a single film. It's in the same vein, naturally, as 'The Saga Begins,' 'Jurassic Park,' and possibly 'Yoda.' In this case it's about the 2002 Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man film: that one with Tobey Maguire that you probably really hate or really love or like me are rather indifferent about. It's a parody of 'Piano Man,' of course, which works when you can easily substitute 'Spider' in for 'Piano.' Like 'The Saga Begins,' 'Jurassic Park' and 'Yoda' it's also not a parody of a song contemporary with the album, which is clearly a recurring device of Al's that I've completely missed before. The lyrics are standard fare, being humorous summaries of plot points, jokes about inevitable sequels and overused catch-phrases and so on. I wonder if the line about Norman Osborn's "dumb Power Rangers mask" is meant to be in tune with the common criticism of the Green Goblin costume in this film. It's an okay but, in my opinion, not an especially memorable parody. The best thing about it is probably Al's understated lyrics to match the low-key mood of a lot of the song, things like "It's a pretty sad day at the funeral/Norman Osborn has bitten the dust," and the rhyming of "screwy" and "knew he." I guess this film was a pretty big deal in its day. I never saw it in full until about a year or so ago as of my writing this.

A style parody of Bob Dylan with only palindromes for lyrics, this is a clever little number. Dylan gets mocked and pastiched a lot, but Al does it here in a pretty inventive way. See Bowie's 'Song for Bob Dylan' or Zappa's 'Flakes' for Dylan imitations that deal with more Dylan-centric subject matter (Dylan the musician, I would argue, for the former, and his political and social views in the latter). This one might be a comment on the incomprehensibility of some of his lyrics or, these days apparently, a lot of his singing. The best palindromes in my view are "Was it a car or a cat I saw?" "May a moody baby doom a yam," and "Go hang a salami, I'm a lasagna hog," because they are simultaneously the most coherent and the most bizarre. This track might also be compared to They Might Be Giants' 'I Palindrome I' from their Apollo 18 album in some respects, although come to think of it that might be a bit of a stretch.

Transitional Al occurs here in the shape of a technology-themed track, weirdly similar in hindsight to 'Craigslist' on Alpocalypse. Again, it's hyper-exposed pop music transformed into a meditation on something mundane. I think that's especially true in a 2003 context, when I believe eBay was still thought of as a bit of a novelty, a place where people impulse-bought junk. These days, of course, it's basically just a shopping site where you go to buy stuff you're having trouble finding elsewhere or at a reasonable price. My favourite lines probably include the remark about "some guy I've never met in Norway" and "don't know why/The kind of stuff you'd throw away," which are classic examples of Al's talent for using simple language in extremely blunt and therefore amusing ways. It's also a good example of how Al takes junk (in his case pop music) and finds some value in it, not unlike the eBay user of the time I suppose.

Genius in France
This album's 'long song,' it's also a style parody of mid-to-late 70s and early 80s Frank Zappa. It's interesting to compare the family-friendly lyrics of Al to the heavily politicised, often obscene and deviously taboo-breaking lyrics of Zappa. Zappa was a complicated man, but I think one of the most successful things about his music, from this period at least, in addition to the sheer artistry of his musicianship is the way that it used rock music in transgressive ways. In its inception rock was, of course, something that was extremely challenging to the establishment, but a lot of it came to be totally commodified and conformist. Zappa turned that against itself, writing music about themes of sex, sexuality, race and politics that mainstream music was too fatuous and bland or too repressed to express. Al's work, according to the reasons I've been developing, is comparable in how it takes the repetitive themes of mainstream pop music (cliché romance, the supposed drama of everyday life, simplistic approaches to social and political issues etc) and turns them into songs about the trivial things that the consumers who support the industry actually care about: what's on TV tonight? What am I going to have for dinner? The themes are a bit different for Al and Zappa, but I think both are really arguing against a lot of the pretensions of the industry. Anyway, this is a song about a stupid, feckless American guy who's inexplicably popular in France. Maybe it's poking fun at Zappa's proclivity for 'insensitive' or ambiguous remarks and messages in his music. It's of course also poking fun at how long some Zappa compositions are. Most of the humour comes from descriptions of how stupid this guy is and amusing rhymes of English and French words and phrases. The dodgiest part is probably when the term "Frogs" is actually used but I guess the guy is meant to be a jerk. All the talk of how stupid he is reminds me a good deal of the descriptions of 'Jimmy the Geek' from 'That Boy Could Dance' waaay back on In 3-D as well. Some choice lines include "They like me more than heavy cream," "most people look at me like I'm all covered with ants" and "I'm not even welcome at the Star Trek convention." It's an odd song, fittingly enough, but quite entertaining, and the Zappa pastiche is pretty effective.

That's Poodle Hat for you: Al trying to find his feet between two eras in a new millennium. It's not one of my favourites, unfortunately, but something has got to give. It's most interesting as an observation of Al moving into new themes and styles. The only video for this one is a short one they knocked together for 'Bob' after Eminem wouldn't let them make one for 'Couch Potato.' Maybe if we'd gotten that it'd be better remembered.

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