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.