Anyone who digs through my CD collection will quickly discover two things. First, that I’m a slob who hasn’t quite gotten the hang of that whole alphabet thing yet. And second, that my musical tastes tend to bounce all over the place like a drunken Superball. Skill and melody and evocative lyrics attract me no matter what style they’re in, and rare indeed is the genre that doesn’t have at least one song I like. If I tried to collect every kind of music I like, I’d go broke.
So I buy Weird Al CDs instead.
Makes sense. His tastes are even more wide-ranging than mine and his versions are usually better than the originals anyway. Why listen to songs about violence, angst, and sappy romance when you can enjoy songs about food, TV shows, roomfuls of garbage and the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota? I know which direction my toes tap, and that’s why I’m glad that his latest album, “Poodle Hat,” just hit the shelves.
Weird Al Yankovic and his superhumanly talented band have been producing note-perfect parodies of popular songs for over two decades now, making for a longer and more successful career than most of the bands he’s gently mocked. His versions — with “improved” and hilarious lyrics — have often saved a tune for my listening pleasure long after I was heartily sick of the song being spoofed. No matter what style he turns his hand to, be it rock, pop, country, ballad, a capella, or even hip hop, Al and his band can handle them all.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of his first self-titled album, released in April of 1983. I know this because that’s when I bought it.
I’ve always had a passion for comedy albums. In high school I memorized entire routines, entire album sides, to perform for friends who couldn’t get away or feign death fast enough. This was when the comedy bins at the record store were always full, before HBO, before cable, before the comedy club explosion, before the Internet. If a comedian wanted to get his or her name out there, that comedian had only three choices: get on “The Tonight Show,” get arrested for possession, or release an album. George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Cheech & Chong, Flip Wilson, I had them all. Still do. They get pulled out and played on occasion, if only to pass on to my children such antiquated skills as how to balance pennies on the needle arm to make it play past a scratch without skipping, a knack that is oddly underappreciated in the digital age.
When Weird Al hit the airwaves I was instantly intrigued by the concept of a guy not much older than me performing accurate and silly versions of hit songs using, of all things, an accordion and getting away with it. This, I sensed, was someone with whom I could bond.
His first national tour was to promote his second album, “In 3-D,” which went platinum largely because Michael Jackson could take a joke. Jackson graciously allowed Al to parody his smash hit song and video “Beat It,” which was about conflict and gang violence. Al’s incredibly detailed parody “Eat It” (about a finicky eater) became wildly popular, ultimately hitting #12 on the Billboard charts and propelling Al out of his small cult audience into a much larger, worldwide cult audience.
The first concert I ever attended was Al’s “In 3-D” tour, which stopped here at the Peabody Auditorium. Even then, just starting out, he gave a hellacious performance. At that point his production quality was closer to the “my dad’s got a barn, we can put on a show” level, but the music was excellent. No sweeteners, no recorded tricks, just Al, his accordion, and a twisted sense of humor. To honor the occasion my friend and I went half each for a concert shirt which he kept, something that bugs me to this day despite the fact that by now it would fit me like a rubber glove on a watermelon.
From then on, every CD was bought and often memorized the day it came out, with me and my equally obsessed friends driving around town for hours just to play it over and over, cranked up on the car stereo. As fast as new trends and hot artists popped up, Al was there waiting for them with a maniacal grin.
His concerts were even better. After the first one I was there for every Central Florida Weird Al appearance, and they’ve always been worth it. When he’s on the stage he performs with studio-quality skill and manic energy, utilizing his own brand of pyrotechnics (he uses soap bubbles) and rapid costume changes. There’s a massive prosthetic suit for his Michael Jackson parody “Fat,” Obi-Wan garb for the Star Wars/Don McLean spoof “The Saga Continues” and the eerie “Yoda Chant,” and his Madonna-ish “Like A Surgeon” writhing must be seen to be appreciated. There’s also a few songs and medleys in his catalog that remain exclusive to his live performances as a treat for his fans. One by one I took my sons to Orlando concerts as a rite of passage and now both of them are fellow Al-coholics who remain amazed that their dad knows all the words to songs they actually like.
It’s easy for the skeptical non-fan, such as my wife, to dismiss Al as a musical poser who rides on the success of other people. That’s when I point out that he’s been nominated for eight Grammies (won two), wrote and starred in his own cult-classic movie (“UHF”); appeared in any number of television specials and what seemed like every VH1 show broadcast last year; created his own Saturday morning kid’s show; and has a boatload of gold and platinum albums and videos as well as a snappy personal wardrobe. Then I bring up her Bee Gees obsession and our uneasy truce renews.
“Poodle Hat” is Al’s 11th album, not counting the singles and compilations, and after all this time certain truths have emerged for the careful observer.
— Album after album, Weird Al is getting better at it, and he was pretty darn good when he started out.
— The first song always parodies the hottest “real” song. This time it’s Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Usually there’s a video to accompany it but Eminem refused to let it be made, preferring to maintain the “kids’ visual perception on what that image was,” according to spokesperson Dennis Dennehy. Fair enough, I suppose, and at least he let the song stay on the album. Personally I think he was just peeved that Al’s movie was better than his.
— Any song is better when performed to a polka beat.
— Food is always funny. So are television show themes.
— An accordion can be a powerfully rocking instrument, especially if you set fire to it afterwards.
— People can be paid for making fun of other people. You have no idea how personally inspiring I find this.
It’s been four years since his last CD — a longer gap than usual — but since he spent that time getting married, having a daughter, and appearing on “The Simpsons,” I’m willing to let it slide. “Poodle Hat” is a feast for the fans, respectfully slamming artists Eminem, Nelly, Avril Lavigne, the Backstreet Boys, Bob Dylan, and Billy Joel, and closing with an incredible 9 minute Frank Zappa tribute. The enhanced CD contains 12 songs, Al’s home movies, a photo gallery, eight bonus mixes and more.
According to his Web site Weird Al will be appearing at Orlando’s House of Blues Saturday, July 5. And so will I, with my sons, who are trying to catch up.