Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Matt Braunger's "Big Dumb Animal"

When it comes to writing reviews for this website, I’ve developed a method that I believe works well and gives each project a pretty fair shot. I listen to the CD twice all the way through before writing a single word. Then I write down the track listing and as I play through for a third time I begin to make notes. This has become a self-imposed rule that I’ve stuck to on all but a handful of the nearly 300 reviews I’ve thrown up here. Sometimes I jot down quotes and sometimes just the premise for bits that grabbed my attention. I write down what stood out as really good and I write down what stood out as really bad. If a track goes by that isn’t particularly noteworthy, I simply delete that line and move on to the next. By the end of the final playback, I have a skeleton of a review from which to work.

After reviewing - and really enjoying - Matt Braunger’s “Shovel Fighter” back in July of 2012, I was looking forward to his follow-up project, “Big Dumb Animal.” After my first time around, though, I was a bit disappointed. Nothing jumped out at me and I was hard-pressed to recall and specific bits. I remembered that he yelled a lot but…that was about it. 

I wanted to like this CD and was hopeful that on my second listen things would click. There were a few occasions of “Oh yeah, this one was good” but for the most part I found myself apathetic and I couldn’t put my finger on why. Braunger was certainly putting his all into it and he sure was yelling a lot but it all felt to be much ado about nothing.

As I approached my third listen, I told myself that this would be the time everything fell into place. I made a list of the 18 track titles and ended up taking notes on less than half of them (only seven, to be exact) and finally had to be honest and admit to myself that I just didn’t connect with this one. I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it and perhaps therein lies the problem: “Big Dumb Animal” didn’t make me feel anything.

Braunger’s bits on blood donor questionnaires and the guy on the bus who didn’t know when to not hit on a woman were entertaining but there seemed to be more misses than hits this time around. He takes the long, long, long, looong way around to get to a “Please drink responsibly” punchline and I found his description of a waiter spilling a tray of food so unbelievably slapstick-y, it was like it happened in an episode of “Saved By the Bell.” 

What really stands out to me, though, is the fact that 11 tracks went by and garnered no reaction at all. That’s a big percentage and a fact I can't ignore. As a lifelong fan of the Chicago Cubs, I know a bad batting average when I see one. But, as a lifelong fan of the Chicago Cubs, I don’t give up on my team just because they had a bad game. “Big Dumb Animal” wasn’t what I hoped it would be, but I’m still optimistic. We’ll get ‘em next time, guys.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Brooks Wheelan's "This Is Cool, Right?"

I went in to Brooks Wheelan’s “This is Cool, Right?” rooting for him. As an avid viewer of “Saturday Night Live” I always felt bad for Wheelan, who joined the cast as a featured player at the same time as 64 other featured players and as a result kind of got lost in the shuffle. He was in and out before I got the chance to connect with him and when this CD released I was excited to finally have the chance to get to know him and his sense of humor.

To be honest, things get off to a fairly rocky start. He begins with a few bits about recording his CD and how he hopes it’s going well that are OK, but didn’t do much to really grab me. He’s trying really hard and putting his all into it, but his punches just weren’t landing the way I wished they would and I began to worry that we were in trouble. 

After about five minutes, however, things began to turn around. Wheelan has warmed up and pieces begin to fall into place. I eventually caught myself transitioning from smiles to chuckles to genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Once Wheelan finds his footing, it’s smooth sailing and nice laughs throughout the rest of his set.

Wheelan has a bit on being high and seeing a French-speaking baby that is fresh and fun and foreshadows the whimsical sense of humor that will be coming our way. His zeal is contagious and when he gets excited about driving into town to see the internet for the first time, we do too. It’s soooo much better than Oregon Trail and the wonderful mysteries of will soon be unlocked in all of their “for more information”-al glory.

At one point Wheelan reveals why he went into comedy (it had something to do with his dad’s possum-stained pants) and considering all of the outlandish experiences he’s gone through in life, there’s no way he couldn’t not talk about them eventually. Revenge on his brothers by contaminating their mouthwash, a man’s wet ponytail in his mouth, and the horrible, horrible, terrible butter incident that scarred his college years all serve as great fodder for his material and the way Wheelan reacts to each incident (usually with a dramatic “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!”) only enhances each circumstance and adds fuel to the funny.

The album ends with a piece on his abbreviated stint on SNL. Instead of going the route of tell-all gossip, Wheelan instead opts to share with us his ideas for sketches that never made it to air. Some of them are better than others but all of them are fun to hear pitched. 

Despite a few misfires at the outset, Wheelan has put together a project I feel more than comfortable recommending. The grind of being hired - and ultimately fired - from such a highly revered comedy institution could leave someone understandably bitter and jaded but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Wheelan. He’s taken all of life’s little hiccups in stride and used them to craft some wonderfully funny moments. “This is Cool, Right?” asks the title of the CD. I am happy to report the answer to his query is, “Yes, Brooks. Totally.”

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Louis C.K.'s "Live at the Comedy Store"

If you’ve downloaded the new special from Louis C.K., “Live at the Comedy Store,” then perhaps as you watched the video version (If you purchase the album from his website, you get to download both the audio and the video release. Not bad for five bucks) you felt it too. There’s a noticeable difference between C.K. stepping onto a massive theater stage and C.K. entering from behind the curtain at The Comedy Store. There’s a spark of electricity and “this is comedy”-ness that permeates the air, even when watching it on my tiny laptop screen. Yes, I’m very happy for the success of C.K. and it always makes me feel good when a comedian is able to pack out a theater or arena…but there’s something about a comedy club setting that just feels…right.

It should come as no surprise to fans of C.K. that he has released another hour of solid, smart, new, and - most importantly - funny material. If, for whatever reason, you’re on the fence about grabbing this one and adding it to your playlist, allow me to reassure you that it’s a no-brainer. Not only did I buy this as soon as I heard it was available but immediately after listening I promptly returned to C.K.’s site and bought it for a friend. And then I went back and bought it for another friend. It’s nearly impossible to listen to something this funny and not want to share it with others.

The evening of comedy is bookended by two very different impressions. His set starts off with the worst impression of a Mexican you’ve ever heard (whatever you have pictured in your mind, it’s probably wrong) and ends with the best recreation of Ray Bolger’s performance in The Wizard of Oz that was completely over the top…even for The Wizard of Oz. As evidenced on these opening and closing tracks, C.K. loves to play around with voices. It’s fun hearing him display the best way to thank the bat man (not Batman) and when he begins to talk to his toilet disrespectfully (yeah, you read that right), be prepared to begin referring to your own as a “ dumbass toe-lit.” 

During the course of his set, C.K. gleefully bounces from one topic to the next. Sometimes it only takes him a short bit to get to the punch (“First & Last Time Having Sex” is only a minute and a half long, but there’s a lot of comedy packed into those 90 seconds) and sometimes he sticks around for a while and really digs in (like he does with “Babies on a Plane” and the hilarious “Bats” that immediately reminded me of the John Candy/Dan Aykroyd classic film, The Great Outdoors)

You’ll crack up at C.K.’s take on the Bostonian accent (It’s not an accent. It’s a whole city of people saying most words wrong) and his claim that maybe everything Mark Twain said wasn’t brilliant. Also in his crosshairs this time around: Tap-dancers, music students on the subway, Benji, a kid he knew growing up and his stupid mom, and the dog he had that also hated his guts. 

I don’t think it’s abusing the phrase if I refer to C.K. as a comic genius. It’s been two years since his last release but he usually drops an album at the unheard-of pace of one per year. Considering they’re all among the best of the year and he’s also churning out a brilliant television show at the same time, it’s not going out on a limb to rank this guy at the top. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Maronzio Vance's "Laughmatic"

I knew I liked Maronzio Vance. 

Maybe it’s because he was a cast member of one of my favorite canceled-too-soon television shows of recent history. Maybe it’s because he comes highly recommended by a friend whose opinion I highly respect. Or maybe - just maybe - it’s because he’s so freakin’ funny (or, as I used to say growing up in Indiana, “so stinkin’ funny”)

I’ll go with the latter. I admit I didn’t put two and two together and didn’t even realize Vance was an "Enlisted" cast member until I peeked at his website. It was a great show but unfortunately not around long enough for me to become familiar with the names of the cast members (I’m still bitter about this show slipping through the cracks knowing "Two and a Half Men" is still on the air).

I like to think I’m not so influential that I automatically like everything my friend recommends based on the sole fact it was his recommendation. We have a healthy “agree to disagree” relationship when it comes to comedy we don’t see eye-to-eye on. We can disagree and discuss without it hampering our friendship. Weird, I know.

Which leaves the final option: Vance is indeed one funny guy. 

You don’t have to listen to “Laughmatic” long before that fact makes itself apparent. Vance is laid-back and comfortable onstage and his comedy is smooth and relatable. Vance is one of us: a regular Joe who just happens to pick up on the messed-up stupid quirks of daily life. One wouldn’t think that a matter of four cents would be something about which a scene would be caused but sometimes it’s the principal of the matter and you have to stand up to the Little Caesar and fight for your rights.

Vance knows what it is to feel the bite of our current economy and when he learns that clean shoes are just as good as new shoes, it’s a game changer. He struggles with the depression that comes with residing in a studio apartment (you’re only one room away from being homeless) and he would gladly eat healthier if you didn’t have to take out a home loan in order to do so.

I really like the way Vance handles the touchy subject of race (yes, I stole that phrase from "Avenue Q"). His commentary is biting and honest but never comes across as preachy or angry. Whether he’s accidentally being racist while giving a threat level-themed compliment, having his handouts refused by a prejudiced vagrant, or explaining to a child why white people hate black people, Vance creates an environment where everyone feels free to laugh.

That’s not to say Vance has never ruffled any feathers. Just ask the girl working at the cell phone cover kiosk in the mall. Or the man on the street who is particularly stingy with his dollar dances. Or anyone who thinks the bald eagle should be the American mascot forever and ever, despite the fact that bald eagles - the symbol of freedom - are almost extinct. Cockroaches, on the other hand, will be around forever. Just sayin’.

The CD is bookended with a behind-the-scenes pre and post-show interview with Rooftop Records’s Dominic Del Bene. It’s fun to listen to Vance give his thoughts on the performance, reviewing himself in a much funnier and more entertaining way than I can. "Is it great?" he muses. "I don't know."

It is, Maronzio. It is.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Matt Fugate's "Believement"

The Blue Fugates of Kentucky. 

Heard of ‘em? 

They’re a family from the Troublesome Creek region (as if the name of the creek wasn’t foreshadowing enough) who, as a result of inbreeding, began to produce kids with Smurfy-blue skin. 

True story, and it’s one that the very funny Matt Fugate doesn’t necessarily hesitate to share. Not that he’s particularly proud of his distant relation to that particular branch of the family tree, but he doesn’t mind a little egg on his face if it’s good for a laugh.

On his project “Believement” there’s plenty of egg - and laughs - to go around. 

Fugate takes hit after hit for the team, recounting one embarrassing transgression after another and giving us complete freedom to laugh at his expense. Despite being a professional comedian, he finds himself being outdone by the class clown in his child’s elementary school lunch room and he can’t understand why the pronunciation of his last name (“few-gate”) seems to stump so many people (not “fyoo-zhay” or “foo-gotti”). [Ed's Note: It’s a little puzzling to me, too, but maybe that’s because there was actually a kid in my school for a few years with the same last name. ]

The granddaddy of these tales, "Matt vs. the Dance Floor," is so epic it had to be cut into two segments. I like how he leaves the second half of the time he tried to “go for it” on the dance floor at a wedding as his closer, leaving the crowd hanging with a “to be continued” vibe as he forces us to wait to find out what happens in the exciting conclusion. It’s well worth the wait and a nicely constructed way of amping the anticipation for the second half of the story. And can I just say that he perfectly describes the sound of a skull cracking against a marble floor? Just listening hurt my head and - judging by the audiences reaction - the heads of everyone within the sound of his voice.

The album isn’t just one tale of sad-sackery after another as Fugate is more  than willing to point out he isn’t the only goofball bumbling around in public. There are the various religions and their unique approaches to door-to-door proselytizing. There are the people who decide which eggs get which grade (how bad does one have to be to get a “B”?) and the people who complain that gay marriage will destroy the sanctity of their third marriage. 

And then, of course, there are the real assholes. He’s referring, of course, to 13-year-olds and no one seems to be very eager to disagree. 

Fugate is a fun storyteller (his child’s teacher will attest to this fact) and time flies when you’re listening to the CD. He’s engaging and his enthusiasm is infectious and you’ll love his impression of the sound of a room full of hungry grade-schoolers. His daughter, in all of her car salesman-y fervor, explains that it takes three things to achieve the seemingly impossible: Skill, heart, and “believement.”

Her dad has all three in spades.