A buyers’ guide to Flight of the Conchords

I can’t remember the first I became aware of Flight of the Conchords. I had certainly heard of them prior to my friend Mark recommending their TV series to me. Although Mark has always had a good idea of what music and television I would enjoy, it would be a few years until I fully investigated the work of New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo thanks to my then new girlfriend, although along the way I acquired “Bowie” on a Sub-Pop compilation, so I knew they were capable of greatness, and it would only be a matter of time before I immersed myself in their work.

Now when I do a buyers guide to an act, I tend to concentrate on their studio album releases, however for Flight of the Conchords, because they are such a multi-medium act, I simply can’t restrict myself to their album releases, because they have to date only released two studio albums, a live album from their pre-TV show days and an EP. Their radio series, and in particular their television series are as much a part of the Flight of the Conchords story, so I’m having to approach all aspects of their output in this guide.

The duo of Brett McKenzie and Jemaine Clement formed Flight of the Conchords in Wellington New Zealand in 1998, and steadily established themselves on the comedy scene with their blend of comedic song and between song banter. While there is plenty of YouTube footage of varying quality from this period of their career, the only official release commemorating their early career is the hard to find live album, Folk the World Tour. It’s certainly an amusing listen, and fascinating if you are interested in hearing early versions of songs that they would work into their TV show years later.

Although not so well remembered as their TV show, in 2005 Flight of the Conchords’ would record a self titled radio series for BBC Radio 2. The six episode series would follow their fictional attempts to break into the English music industry, under the guidance of idiosyncratic manager Murray Hewitt (memorably played by fellow New Zealander Rhys Darby), who had made a habit of calling Crowded Houses frontman and New Zealand Rock Royalty Neil Finn for unwilling advice. Various British comedians who have since become household names would make cameo appearances, most notable among them being Jimmy Carr, and Television’s Emma Kennedy, both of whom made multiple appearances.

Listening to the radio series now, there’s plenty of songs and even dialogue which would later be lifted wholesale for the television series, and it’s a fascinating listen, as many fans of the television series don’t even realise that there was a radio series that pre-dated it. Happily for everyone concerned, it’s readily available on BBC CD, and is well worth investigating.

Of course, Flight of the Conchords are primarily known for their self titled 22 episode, two season, television show for HBO. Taking the same narrative of the radio series, and translating it to a visual medium for an international audience was a huge success, despite the television series tweaking the formula a little. While the British comedians were replaced by American comedy actors in the equivalent roles (primarily the obsessed fan played by Jimmy Carr, would be replaced by the similarly obsessed, but also sexually aggressive, Mel, played to perfection by Kristen Schall), the character of Murray was retained, and the interplay of Clement, McKenzie and Darby was a key part of the series’ success. Hell, Murray even got the opportunity to perform a song with the backing of the band from time to time.

One element of the show that was sadly not translated from radio to television was Murray’s unsolicited calls to Neil Finn for music career advice. It’s a shame that this element was cut, but given that Neil Finn isn’t as well known in the USA as he is in the UK, and taking into consideration the increased number of episodes of the television series, there was every chance that the running gag of Murray phoning Finn out of the blue and annoying him every episode was going to wear a bit thin.

Both seasons of the series focus on Brett and Jemaine’s fictional attempts to establish their music career in New York City, and various episodes concentrate on their individual love lives, Murray’s haphazard attempts at juggling managing the band with his day job at the New Zealand Consulate, and later on the band’s somewhat shaky immigration status in the USA. All of this was intercut with music videos which slotted in with the narrative of each episode, and saw them tackle all manner of music genres outside of the folk-duo format that they were trying to establish themselves as.

After two hugely successful seasons, in late 2009, Flight of the Conchords announced that there would be no third season, leaving them in the enviable position of leaving their audience wanting more, and not having outstayed their welcome, and falling into the trap that the majority of comedic songwriters fall prey to, in that in an attempt to remain relevant, the jokes start to wear thin, and the magic is lost. Flight of the Conchords got out while they were still relevant, and the subsequent steady sales of the TV series on DVD demonstrates that the TV series continues to age well.

In parallel with the well received television show, Flight of the Conchords released an EP and a couple of studio albums featuring music from the series.

The first of these was The Distant Future EP, released a couple of months after the first season had hit television screens. Featuring studio versions of three of the best songs from the first five episodes of the TV series, as well as a couple of live versions of another two songs from the first half of the series, and a track of between song banter, The Distant Future EP proved that the duo’s songs could work effectively outside of the framework of the television show.

Of the three studio tracks on The Distant Future EP, “I’m Not Crying” has been utilised repeatedly in films and television series outside of the Flight of the Conchords. It’s one of the band’s best numbers, being a song that’s instantly relatable, and in it’s own way, a really very emotional song, with Bret and Jermaine nailing the melodrama of trying to give the impression that you’re okay with a relationship ending when you’re actually anything but that.

When it comes to the other two studio tracks, “Business Time” is a great ode to sex in a well-worn relationship, “While if You’re Into It” is on the other end of the relationship spectrum, where trying to establish if furtive sexual advances would be welcome is executed in the most clumsy way possible. The fact that both of these songs are so relatable and well observed is a measure of how well Flight of the Conchords understand not only their audience, but how relationships actually work.

The two live tracks on the EP are a pair of Flight of the Conchords’ best songs. “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room” takes a Prince like declaration of intent, but downsizing it to the point where it’s actually much more realistic in its depiction of romance than Mr Nelson’s somewhat unreliable sexual exploits. “Robots” is a humorous assessment of a dystopian future. Silly, but worth the laugh.

In early 2008, by the time it was obvious that Flight of the Conchords and HBO had a hit on their hands with the television series, an eponymous studio album was released, which featured many of the songs from the show’s first season. The album sees the band parody a number of styles with ease and demonstrate that even their lesser songs have a chucklesome moment or two. From 80s synth pop (“Inner City Pressure”), manufactured boy-band ballads (“A Kiss is Not a Contract” easily eclipsing anything that Boyzone or Westlife have ever released), glam (the peerless “Bowie”) and even a well-executed The Dukes of Stratosphear sound-alike (“The Prince of Parties” may be the only parody of a parody), they’re all great little tunes, hell, even “Hiphopapotamous vs. Rhymoncerous” celebrates the cultural limitations of well meaning white dudes trying to appropriate hip-hop for their own ends. Quite why they chose to open the album with the weak “Foux Du Fafa” is anyone’s guess though.

As amusing as much of this material is, there were a number of notable omissions. While “I’m Not Crying” and “If You’re in to It” were already available on the previously released EP, quite why “Sellotape (Pencils in the Wind)” was only available as a download track, is anyone’s guess, although admittedly “Frodo (Don’t Wear the Ring)”, does need the accompanying visuals togged the most from it. Also, while I can understand that they may have wanted this album to effectively be a soundtrack of their first TV series, surely the heart-wrenching epic of love, loss and amnesia that is “Jenny” could have been included as a bonus track.

By the time I Told You I Was Freaky was released in October 2009, the second season of the television series had already aired, and it was obvious that a second studio album featuring songs from it would be well received. While I Told You I Was Freaky was indeed a collection of songs from their second TV series, it is also a clutch of surprisingly catchy and durable tunes. True, like a lot of Flight of the Conchords material, they are directly parodying other well known acts, it manages to perform the neat trick of being warm-hearted and never cruel (indeed, why shouldn’t more rappers confess when their egos have been trodden on by friends and family).

The music from the second season was much more flavoured by synthesisers and studio trickery this time around – the comedy-folk tag here starting to fade and be replaced by something considerably more diverse without losing sight of the fact that the vast majority of their fans are listening for the lyrics rather than the music itself. I Told You I Was Freaky found Flight of the Conchords continue to genre-hop with brilliant results, as R’n’B (“Sugalumps”, “We’re in Love With a Sexy Lady”), rap (“Hurt Feelings”), electro pop (“Fashion is Danger”) and disco floor-fillers (the brilliantly accurate “Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor”) are executed with confidence, while the title track exists in a suitably weird little universe of its own.

That said, there is the occasional misfire on I Told You I Was Freaky, with “Demon Woman” is fine, but struggles to stand out, and quite why they chose to dig out “Petrov, Yelyena and Me” from their distant past is a puzzle. Why these numbers were chosen over say, “Epileptic Dogs”, is anyone’s guess (I for one would “Give a donation and save a shaky Dalmatian”, if it was done in this manner). The triumph of the album though is the quietly brilliant “Carol Brown”, a litany of clichéd excuses given by partners when you are being dumped, which manages to walk the fine line between touchingly honest and brutally funny.

A couple of months after the release of I Told You I Was Freaky, the announcement was made that there would be no third season of the television series, and it seemed that Flight of the Conchords would go on hiaitus.

The legacy of Flight of the Conchords has been wide and varied. They proved that, with care, it was possible to record songs which managed to pull off the notoriously difficult combination of humour and great songs with replay value. The television series gave a significant career boost to not only Clement and McKenzie, but to Rhys Darby and Kristen Schall in particular, and it gave some musicians from yesteryear the chance to score some cool cache by making cameos in the show (both Darryl Hall and Art Garfunkel steal the scenes they are in). Perhaps most notably, the television show demonstrated that it was possible to have songs within comedy shows without making the viewer want to switch off. This influence can be seen writ large in a show like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and to a lesser extent The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Since late 2009 both Clement and McKenzie have furthered their acting careers, both as a duo and solo, with Clement being the slightly more prolific, and McKenzie writing original songs for both of the recent Muppets films, the second of which Clement cameo in. The duo remain closely linked, with 2012 seeing both a charity single and a tour of New Zealand as Flight of the Conchords.

In the last few years there has been a flurry of Flight of the Conchords activity, with a tour of North America in 2016, and a sell out tour of the UK, as well as the long awaited film / HBO television special in early 2018. Perhaps it is too much to expect a third album, but I for one continue to hold out hope.

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