It’s been eleven years since New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular folk-comedy duo first hit the small screen with their iconic HBO show. They were already well-known on the comedy scene and their BBC Radio show had been a bit of an underground smash but when they took their schtick to the States, well, it was a whole new level. Pretty soon they were synonymous with New Zealand, the second (fittingly, for their humble humour) international touchstone for this country after the Lord of the Rings films.
Eleven years is a bloody long time. I remember HBO – a pre-Game of Thrones HBO – putting out the pilot episode for download as a video podcast on eyeTunes, back in the early days of podcasts when there were still video podcasts. I watched it on my eyePod Nano and it was probably one of my first experiences downloading a telly show and would have been about the last thing on that scale where I was tethered to the weekly broadcast schedule, pretty sure it played on Prime here. Chatting about it at school the next day with the select few mates who were already into the Conchords. Classic times.
By the second season everybody was watching it. Everyone knew the words to all the jams. Two albums and an EP released on Sub Pop, twenty-two magnificent episodes of television, and desperate prayers for a movie that never happened. At the time it felt like the second album didn’t live up to the immaculate heights of the first one but time’s been kind to both records, now certifiable masterpieces. The second season was equally and instantly as excellent as the first.
And then it was over.
They never needed to break up and they’ve always re-emerged as a pairing here or there. The odd tour and the odd charity single. But mostly Bret and Jemaine went on and did their own thing for the best part of a decade, from the latter’s Hollywood acting career (Men in Black 3, Moana, What We Do in the Shadows) to the former’s Oscar-winning soundtrack for the Muppets film. Safe to say they’ve each had successful solo careers – better chuck Rhys Darby into that conversation too, thriving since his star-making role as Murray the Manager (“present!”). Also Taika Waititi had a fair bit to do with the show… even some of the comedian cameos on the show are now amazing in hindsight. That was my first introduction to Aziz Ansari (racist fruit vendor), Kristen Wiig (had an epileptic dog), Will Forte (hired actor meant to cheer Murray up), Demitri Martin (a potential new band member), and Jim Gaffigan (Murray’s best friend).
It’s now the distant future, the year 2018, and the Conchords are back. They’ve got an hour-and-a-half-long live special airing on HBO, which premiered on the weekend so you’ll be able to find it one way or another by now, recorded in London in July and featuring several new songs. In fact there are almost as many new songs as old songs. You’d be forgiven for thinking this might be a cash-grab nostalgic venture and they’d be well within their rights to do exactly that (I’d have still watched the hell out of it) but, no, this is Flight of the Conchords for 2018.
The lads went on Colbert a few days before the special aired. Just a few days before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appeared on the same show, actually, which must be some kind of record. Pretty much the first joke off the bat (after asking Jacinda if they could come around for dinner some time) was about how much older they look these days. Which is true, they do look older. It’s been nine years since the HBO show ended. They are older. They’re now both married with kids. There are grey streaks in the beards and at the temples.
This is a topic that gets a bit of a workout in the special. It’s a topic that could be the ruining of this thing, there’s a reason people groan when nostalgic acts announce they’re gonna play something from the new album, but instead it turns out to be a secret weapon. They’re not the same dudes they were back then, they’re older and wiser and they’ve had time to absorb a new perspective for their comedy. The first tune they do is a new one called Father & Son. A couple fathers finding comedy in fatherhood. They played it on Colbert too. It’s bloody good. Don’t even worry about it.
Next up is a dose of zeitgeisty gender reversal (in that Bret gets to play the man for once), an extremely sexy slice of Britpop based in an equally British but transversely unsexy office setting. Deanna from HR and Ian from Accounting. Woof woof. The first time Bret sings that main line, with the look on his face… it shattered me into pieces, man. It’s so funny.
The Conchords always wrote funny songs and ten minutes into the special we’ve resounding proof that they still do. Not always original sounding tunes but then the genre conventions they borrowed from were kinda crucial to the whole package. Business Time (not in the special) wouldn’t work half as well if it didn’t almost sound like a domesticated Barry White might have ripped into it back in the day. If he ever found himself in a frustrated marriage… which is unlikely… but then that contrast was also part of the whole point. See how it works on so many levels? Comedy songs don’t tend to be even ten percent as musically proficient as these blokes churned them out.
And what’s old mate Bret been doing since the telly show ended? Only winning an Oscar for his work writing original songs for a Hollywood musical is all. See, the Conchords were always impressive musicians as far as comedy tunes go. With this special it’s almost a revelation how good they’ve gotten. Inner City Pressure and Foux Da Fa Fa both get fleshed out with refined arrangements and they’re both outstanding. Each of the guys playing multiple instruments. They even bring out Nigel, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (it’s not a big orchestra but, you know, per capita…).
The Summer of 1353 is next, some melodic medieval merriment. It features several magical Bret vocal moments, some typically clever lyrical moments and an extended duelling recorder solo. Because the poms do love a bit of recorder. So did my year six music teacher at Pap Central, now that I think of it. The Ballad of Stana is weird one, a little Devil Went Down to Georgia ditty, with some quality dick jokes and top notch delivery. By the way, the newer stuff seems to be way more structured for two singers rather than one and harmony. Another welcome evolution.
That’s the thing with this special: it’s a flippin’ victory lap. They’re so damn good, so damn comfortable and in control. You could say it’s a reminder of how good they always were but, to be honest, in a couple useful ways they’ve actually gotten even better. Their musicianship’s unlocked a whole new dimension as far as the live stuff goes. Did I mention how strong Bret’s voice sounds these days? Jemaine’s always been able to lay down the vocal stylings but now Bret’s taking things into the sky (literally in the case of the seagull song).
Outside of the jingles, the between-track banter is pleasant and funny enough. It’s probably a drop off compared to the vibrancy of the songs but that’s also necessary for their laidback on-stage personas, and by this stage it comes so naturally. You’re just hanging out with them while they chat about rock and roll muffins and getting stuck in elevators. The gender reversal bit was the best one but it’s not like you’re gonna want to skip through anything else.
There are a fair few classics that don’t make it here. They don’t need to be here either. No Hiphoppapotamus vs Rhymenocerous for example… but the hip hop selection is more than covered with a medley of Mutha’uckas and Hurt Feelings, with a piano and upright bass accompaniment which, can I say it? Can I say that it’s got Empire State of Mind vibes? Bugger it, because it does. And shout out to Nigel. You’re a bloody legend Nigel.
Back on the Road is a smooth tie-in with some of their earlier banter and then we hit the encore for some Bowie (with odd vocal effects). If I’m keeping it a hundy then I’d say that I’m not sure this rendition lives up to previous incarnations… but RIP Bowie all the same. Then a beauty of a version of the Bus Driver’s Song which is really taking things back. If you’ve seen the band live over the last ten years then you’ve probably heard a couple of the new ones at one point or another but the Bus Driver’s Song you coulda heard nearly twenty years back. Damn. Naturally they close with a trippy version of Robots before Most Beautiful Girl in the Room plays out over the end credits, here’s the full tracklist:
Father & Son
Deanna and Ian
Inner City Pressure
The Summer of 1353
The Ballad of Stana
Foux Da Fa Fa
I’m A Seagull
Back on the Road
Bus Driver's Song
Most Beautiful Girl in the Room
Word is that Sub Pop are gonna put out a live album later in the year and my first thought upon reading that was: why are there not, like, three official live Conchords albums out already? Their two studio albums with Sub Pop are great but they were effectively companion pieces to the TV show. FOTC was a band long before they were telly comics and actors (although Bret was in Lord of the Rings, to be fair). Bret summed this up in a New York Times interview recently, talking about the purpose of this new show…
“I like the idea of capturing what we do live, because it doesn’t really exist on tape. We’ve spent so many years touring, but we’re more well known for the TV show, which is actually quite different from what we really do. People come to the shows, not really knowing what they’re going to see, and they’re surprised that we can play guitar and sing the songs.”
Yeah. Right on.
Having watched the special a couple times now, I can’t even remember what I had been expecting from it. But I know that I love it. I suspect that if I didn’t speak a word of English (or French) then I’d still love it because they’ve gotten so good on the tunes, so good with the arrangements. Thankfully for my chosen profession I do actually speak (and write) some English so I can also offer the opinion that the lads remain extremely amusing too. I hope they keep sporadically doing stuff like this, when the schedules allow. I hope we can all age along with them.
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