When Ugly Duckling came through Iowa City last year promoting their second album, Journey to Anywhere, they left a bit to be desired, especially when overcompensating by telling us how “real” they were. Whatever. Frankly, I was more interested in Psychosomatic, the local crew that opened. These whiteyz with aptitude were straight outta college, probably with more advanced degrees than Picasso had paint: “I’m everywhere you go with my panopticon flow/People drop my name like I’m Michel Foucault.” Only in Ph.D.-heavy Iowa City.
Anyway, imagine my surprise when I heard Ugly Duckling’s new Taste the Secret, which is anything but authentic. What undie hip-hop group in its right mind would dare hire 1980s one-hit wonder Stacey “Two of Hearts” Q to help write pop hooks for a concept album about a fast-food chain that only serves meat fries, meat salads, and meatshakes? The Long Beach trio sprinkles ad jingles (“When you’re hungry and thirsty”) between ridiculously hummable songs, as if the Jungle Brothers and LFO switched brains. The album culminates in an all-out war between vegan hippies and carnivorous yahoos, ending in a bloody, apocalyptic Two Towers-like battle. It’s a hilarious critique of right-wing reactionaries, hypocritical lefties, hyper-commercial consumerism, and the slave-service industry. Like if someone smoked a lot of weed, and turned Fast Food Nation into a hit Broadway musical.
“The Confrontation,” another highlight, could be the soundtrack to an Eminem wannabe picking a fight at the local co-op, but the co-op fights back: “At least they’re not New Age crystal-loving psychos who follow where the light goes, wearing little tight clothes. . . . Good, release that anger, I see you’re too uptight. Come and get a bran muffin. . . . Yeah, not on your life.” But the colon-bustingest song has to be “Meatshake” itself (“It’s nice and tender mixed in a blender/Don’t you want some meat?”). A laid-back, dubbly-bubbly instrumental track serves as the backdrop for an over-the-counterculture rap by a restaurant employee who verbally abuses salad-munchers through the drive-through speaker: “Come on and breathe it in, you can use your teeth again. . . . A cow has got to die too, so don’t let them survive you.”
Sometimes there’s too much goofy-positive Native Tongues throwback, but more often the songs are just catchy. The lead cut, “Opening Act” (which Psychosomatic would no doubt appreciate), mixes Jew’s harps, xylophones, and funky fresh beats into a piano-driven groove sure to make you shake your rump roast. And “Dumb It Down” sounds like Ugly Duckling went to Sweden to record with Max Martin and wound up with the Hives instead. The four-chord garage riff goes duh-duh-duh . . . da-da, and so does the singer; he could almost be in Trio. And his wild thing is more Troggs than Tone-Loc.