They tell you it's not wise to judge a book by its cover but in the case of Matt Braunger, your judgment just might be right on the nose. He describes himself as looking like a giant toddler and his album Shovel Fighter contains everything you might expect from such an illustration: Awkwardness (Braunger is an awkward magnet), childlike and optimistic aspirations (he puts The Secret to the test by announcing to the universe that he would like a panda butler), and sudden outbursts (or, as he refers to them, "out-loud winces").
Braunger's delivery is entertaining and upbeat, each story told with a fun-loving bravado and a smile (except for the title track. But we'll get to that later). As he imagines what Willy Wonka's factory would be like if he had chosen a different food as his focus and finds himself in awe of the talent and mastery of a very specific tattoo artist, we find ourselves laughing not only at the excitement in Braunger's voice but also in the very goofy-ness of it all.
A handful of tracks on the album clock in at around 60 seconds while others fly past the 5-minute mark. Although I did enjoy the shorter vignettes, I preferred the latter. When Braunger really digs in and explores a topic he unearths some very funny material. Who knew that a sound, best described as a gulp/sigh/swallow combination could inspire so many laughs and rich stories? In Braunger's hands, the laughs roll in as he relays some of the stories behind this sound and the Jäger-Hulks that are lurking around the corner should be respected.
As Braunger moves on to his own drinking habits (he has cut down not for health reasons, but to improve the hangovers) he once again likens himself to a pre-schooler, trying to subdue the effects of alcohol by consuming food that is horrible for his body. Of course, giving your order to a waiter is easier said than done when your head is spinning. The result? An order of a tribe of Cheese Babies, a melancholy Hot Boy, and an armada of Ham Dancers.
By the time Braunger tackles bachelorette parties and strip clubs for ladies he's really humming along. As he explains the difference between the male and female versions of these occasions, from headgear to general etiquette, Braunger has the audience in stitches. I particularly enjoyed his take on the Chippendale dancers and the explanation he gives for their partial tuxedo outfits (that really was a sexy hurricane). On the same topic he recommends trying on a bow-tie without a shirt and utters my favorite line of the album: "That guy's ready for some formal volleyball."
For the most part, the album has a light, upbeat vibe about it. The only departure is the title track, which takes an unexpected hard left into very dark comedy. Tucked into the final third of the CD, it really stands out and the tone doesn't seem to gel with the rest of the album. And then, two minutes and 14 seconds later, just as suddenly as it disappeared the jovial feel returns and we're back on track again.
The CD ends with a pair of tracks that, although they both have alcohol as a main character, couldn't be further from each other. One is a real-life ghost story and the other is the sudden interruption of an impromptu clown-themed Chicago pub crawl. They're both great tales and Braunger once again evokes huge laughs from the audience. Whether he's describing the ultimate TV dinner Freudian slip or touting the coolest catchphrase you'll ever hear in an Italian restaurant ("Ess puh gehhh dee dime!"), Braunger brings humor and hilarity to the little nuances of life others might overlook.
Not bad for a tall, awkward toddler.