By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
It would appear that lots of women want to have sex with those dudes from Flight of the Conchords, and I can't decide if this makes them a wild success or a miserable failure. In any event, it's bizarre. "I love you, Bret!" some overheated lass will blurt out during one of the many, many, many faux-awkward pauses during the comedy duo's sold-out show Tuesday night at Town Hall, and when Bret's partner, Jemaine, looks faux-despondent, another overheated lass will blurt out "We love you too, Jemaine!" to cheer him up. Hoots of lust and adoration nearly drown out their every utterance. They are aloof, keytar-brandishing, hirsute New Zealander playboys. When the boys start faux-bragging about their kissing acumen and threaten to set up a kissing booth out in the lobby after the show, a violent mass orgasm seizes hold of the crowd. It's unclear who, if anyone, is joking.
I trace the appeal—though not necessarily the sex appeal—to the way Bret and Jemaine say the word yes. In their flatlined, deader-than-deadpan NZ accents, it comes out as yiss, hard and stoned and robotic, and it kills me every time. If their slight but bewilderingly wonderful HBO show consisted of nothing but the two of them answering questions in the affirmative, it would still be bewilderingly wonderful. They portray hapless wannabe rock stars, bumbling losers—no money, no babes, no style, no class, no hope—who rue their cosmic plight via relentlessly goofy pop jingles, poised on the razor's edge between homage and parody. They Might Be Midgets. Their attempts to woo ladies, best exemplified by "The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room)," are disastrous and offensive; their hip-hop dalliances, whether profane ("Motha'uckas") or sweetly surreal ("Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros," a clash between their MC alter egos), are unlikely to get them signed to Def Jux, let alone Def Jam.
So. The show casts Bret and Jemaine as feeble, asexual losers. But those same songs, slapped on a self-titled, full-length CD by Sub Pop, earned the band—they're not a duo, they faux-protest, but a band—a Top 3 Billboard debut. (Which isn't hard to do these days, but let's keep this positive: A 2007 EP, The Distant Future, won a Grammy, which is somewhat harder.) Furthermore, they now fill sizeable midtown theaters with nubile young ladies. This is basically like having a crush on Beavis and Butt-head. Evidently, the best way to make yourself look sexy and cool in real life is to portray an idiot on television.
In defense of those nubile young ladies, we're talking about really good songs. "Inner City Pressure," which begins Tuesday night's love-in, is a mournful poverty lament with loopy rhymes (muesli/abuse me, high finance/secondhand underpants) and nervous synth-pop undertones; "If You're Into It" (not on the CD, alas) was the most romantic (and realistic) love song of 2007. Though they futz around with French pop occasionally, this isn't breakneck Ween pastiche: Usually Bret and Jemaine aim for the "awkward white Prince/Marvin Gaye impersonation" sweet spot that's remarkably popular these days, though that legacy is so daunting you have to either play it off as a joke or act really, really detached about it. (A friend basically ruined Hot Chip for me by pointing out that they sound exactly the same.) Onstage, propped up casually on stools, looking remarkably more suave and manly than they do on TV (the camera adds 10 pounds of gawkiness), the Conchords nonchalantly but expertly fart around with synths and guitars and a drum machine or two. The tunes hold up just fine even when you've memorized every punchline, but the star attraction tonight is the stage banter, delivered in that same shell-shocked monotone. (It's no surprise that the best impression these guys do is of robots, though Bret does a pretty good "whale trying to send a text message.")
That such cheerily inane banter (the differences between New York and Old York, Bret's imaginary children, that whole kissing thing) drives the ladies wild is profoundly confusing, though. Does the tone and effectiveness of an act like this change now that they've somehow become sex symbols? Can they still pass themselves off as clueless losers? It's an uneasy feeling, especially when you add the long, languid wait until the next season of the HBO show, most probably delayed until 2009. As Bret has noted explicitly, Second-Album Syndrome is a real concern here: years and years to develop the material for the first season/album, but months at best to rustle up enough halfway-decent stuff for the follow-up. Which is why Tuesday's most heartening moment is a new song, a sort of "We Didn't Start the Fire" or "People Who Died" moment wherein Jemaine runs down his failed romantic history—with Felicity, no electricity; Emily, no chemistry; Stan turned out to be a man—while Bret portrays an amalgamation of all those former lovers in choral form, leading Jemaine to sing things like "Who amassed my ex-girlfriends into a choir and asked them to sing?" and "Shut up, girlfriends-from-the-past choir." It was really catchy, honest. Whether the sentiment rings true now that these guys are total stud muffins is, happily, beside the point. It worked out pretty well for Prince.