Jonah Ray, DJ Enki and the Exciting Current Wave of "Weird Al" Yankovic Apprecation
I have spent much of the last eight years proselytizing on behalf of “Weird Al” Yankovic. I helped spread the Gospel of Al to the masses first as the co-author of the 2012 coffee table book Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and then as the man behind the online column The Weird Accordion to Al and book spin-off.
It has been an absolute pleasure, in no small part because it has forced me, yes forced me, to listen to a LOT of Al’s music. It’s business, to be sure, but mostly pleasure, the definition of “nice work if you can get it” and while Al hired me to work on Weird Al: The Book I hired myself to write The Weird Accordion to Al because I thought it would be fun as well as challenging. And it was!
Because I spend so much time listening to Al and writing about Al I feel a kinship to other pop evangelists who have used their art and their adoration to try to get the public to appreciate Al in a deeper, more profound but also fun way, to see him not just as the “Eat It” guy but as one of our most important and consistent satirists, the poet laureate of the supermarket, boob tube and internet.
That’s why I dug 2011’s 26 1/2: A Tribute to “Weird Al” Yankovic as well as two brand spanking new tributes to Al: DJ Enki’s Waxing Weird, a two-part mix-tape that combines some of Al’s best-known work with obscurities, interview snippets, deep album cuts, remixes and AL-TV bits to create a stream-of-consciousness portrait of the man and his times and finally Mystery Science Theater 3000 host Jonah Ray’s cover EP You Can’t Call Me Al.
Waxing Weird accomplishes in about an hour what it’s taken me two and a half years to do with The Weird Accordion to Al: offer a merry chronological jaunt through the life, music and world of “Weird Al” Yankovic through the eyes and ears of a fan who grew up on Al and whose affection for his music has deepened rather than lessened with age and the epic buzzkill that is adulthood.
Enki moves effortlessly between genres, styles and sounds with Al-worthy ease as he shifts confidently from the primitive high spirits of “Another One Rides the Bus” to the cinematic melodrama of “(Theme From Rocky XIII) The Rye or the Kaiser” and the irresistible Beastie Boys rowdiness of “Twister”, using Al’s own carefully chosen words, excerpted from interviews and TV appearances and various other ephemera, to tie everything together in a loving appreciation of the man and his music.
Waxing Weird hit me smack dab in the nostalgia sweet spot. I damn near teared up hearing audio from AL-TV segments featuring a wonderfully oblivious James Brown and Eminem. Eminem of course famously refused Al’s permission to film a video for his “Lose Yourself” for bullshit/non-existent reasons so Al quietly but thoroughly destroyed him satirically as a singularly obnoxious combination of barely comprehensible and extremely pretentious.
The mix format inherently favors Hip Hop: guilty pleasure trifles like “Isle Thing” and “Taco Grande” work much better in this context than they do on the albums that introduced them, but so does oddball detritus like the nifty a cappella number “Since You’ve Been Gone” and even the “30 Rock” theme parody. Even “Jerry Springer”, one of Al’s weakest parodies, sounds terrific here.
Like the best mixes, Waxing Weird afford us the remarkable opportunity to see the familiar and beloved in an exciting and revelatory new way. It’s a deliriously fun spin through the last four decades of pop music that combines audio biography, musical history and sound collage.
It’s available for free time on Bandcamp but why not be a mensch and throw a few coins Enki’s way in appreciation for all of his fine work?
Somewhere near the opposite end of the musical spectrum lies Jonah Ray’s curious, curiously inspired punk cover EP You Can’t Call Me All, an athletic sprint through the words, if not the music of some of Al’s most beloved songs.
There is only one word to describe You Can’t Call Me Al from a conceptual standpoint: unusual. Perplexing! Unexpected! Weird, even!
The tribute EP is at once a loving tribute to someone who clearly means a lot to Ray and the least faithful of cover albums in that Ray essentially tosses out the music of the classics he covers and replaces it with manic punk rock as frenetic as it is melodic and ruthlessly succinct.
Al’s oeuvre is full of tiny little tunes where he’s able to execute a shocking amount of musical and lyrical ideas in the smallest conceivable amount of time. As Squeezebox and Waxing Weird both attest, he is the king of the fifteen to 90 second micro-ditty, tuneful little numbers like “Twister” and “Since You’ve Been Gone.”
You Can’t Call Me Al follows suit, racing headlong through giddy highlights of Al’s catalog like “Frank’s 2000 Inch TV” and “Gangsta’s Paradise” in such a heady rush that five songs clock in at less than eight minutes. Less than eight minutes! That’s shorter than some of Al’s album-ending epics.
Overly-caffeinated pop-punk is just about the only musical genre Al hasn’t tackled on any of his albums. But Ray’s Micro Machine Guy-paced revisionist take on Al’s songs has a certain cracked logic. What is the narrator of “Amish Paradise” if not a sneering, belligerent punk in starchy Luddite garb? He’s a man of the Lord but he’s also a fucking asshole; Ray’s breathless intensity captures the rebellious attitude behind the faux-piety.
“Frank’s Y2K TV”, meanwhile, captures the alt-rock quirkiness and poetry of the original at twice the speed, that heady sense that Frank’s TV is so magnificent and so miraculous that it transcends technology and now qualifies as one of the wonders of the world, like The Great Wall of China, The Roman Coliseum, Taj Mahal and the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota.
I dig Waxing Weird and You Can’t Call Me Al as unexpected and very worthwhile tributes to Al and his world. I’d love for them to be seen as a beginning rather than an end, for Enki to make more mixes out of Al’s songs and words and jokes and ideas and life and for Ray to keep on keeping on in paying homage to a comic hero in an almost excessively original and unusual way.
For that matter I would love for there to be more books about Al’s songs and albums and career after the release of the Weird Accordion to Al book. I want there to be academic symposiums on Al.
The world of “Weird Al” Yankovic is huge. So is the world of “Weird Al” Yankovic appreciation. It’s big enough for all of us and many, many more achingly sincere tributes.
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