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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Flight of the Conchords released album, 'Live in London,' to showcase the evolution of their tunes.

‘Live in London’ album mixes old and new music, elevates stand-up comedy

Near the end of the 2000s, comedy was changing: live-action TV shows “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” were replacing laugh-track driven action and loud personalities with awkward silences and bumbling characters. A mostly-hidden gem that may have passed many people up in this era was the HBO show “Flight of the Conchords.” Starring Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie as fictionalized versions of themselves, the show sees the duo’s escapades in New York City trying to find an American audience against their New Zealand background. Each episode featured a couple of songs by the group — who released 2 studio albums, an EP, a compilation of their radio show from BBC and a previous live album.

The show was a small hit, gaining 10 Emmy nominations over 22 episodes, but fell out of the spotlight against “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and before “Game of Thrones” and “WestWorld” began dominating the mainstream. However, Flight of the Conchords’ music output was steady and their live shows gained them a cult following. Now, 10 years after the last episode was broadcasted, the group has released Live in London, combining old and new material from an HBO special that aired this past October. With relevant and quick wit on their new songs and fun performances of their old songs, Live in London is comedic and rewarding, even if it isn’t as complete as the HBO special.

Considering the solid size of work Flight of the Conchords already has under their belt, another album may seem redundant, but they are fully loaded on Live in London. Out of the 23 total tracks, around seven of them are previously unreleased material and another six are anecdotal bantering. 

The new songs are a lot of fun and rewarding given that some of them are longer in length. Without the pressure to fit the new songs logically into the show’s narrative, songs like “Stana” — a western-epic about a bad man whose name is an anagram for Satan — are worthy additions to Flight of the Conchords’ catalog. “This is the strangest story you’ll ever hear unless you can’t hear. In which case this will be the weirdest tale you’ve ever lip-read,” Clement muses at the beginning of the track. 

Clement and McKenzie play off of each other well and bring different strengths to the table. McKenzie’s vocal range has a wide comedic reach, like on “Summer of 1353,” where Clement’s character on a quest comes across a florist, a tailor, a stable-man and a soon-to-be-royal English lady, all played by McKenzie. Clement’s strength is in sitting back as a reliable presence, using his deeper, monotone voice, such as the confused narrator in “Seagulls” or the father in “Father and Son.” 

One of the best parts of Flight of the Conchords’ music is that they are more skilled than you would guess at producing rich instrumentals. Comedic musicians aren’t very common but one group people often know is The Lonely Island, bolstered by Andy Samberg’s Saturday Night Live tenure. While The Lonely Island rely heavily on the comedic value of song ideas like “Like a Boss” and “D*ck in a Box,” but Flight of the Conchords are more lowkey and more awkward. 

In place of The Lonely Island’s overblown production and guest cameos, Flight of the Conchords makes music and lyrics side-by-side, and if you weren’t listening very closely to the lyrics, a lot of the instrumentals would blend right into the genres in which they are derived. 

“Seagull” is a piano and bass-driven ballad that sounds great, and is one of the best tracks on the record. “Back on the Road” could be straight out of a Bob Dylan album. The guitar melody of “Carol Brown” is irresistible, along with some complementary flourishes from McKenzie’s harmonies and externally-produced counter-melodies.

Meanwhile, on “Summer of 1353,” the duo are joined by Nigel, a bassist that McKenzie and Clement claim is the entire New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Nigel keeps the time with a recorder while McKenzie and Clement go crazy with ridiculous recorder solos. This instance, along with a few others, shows the greatest flaw of Live in London.

While the musical arrangements are well-written and the vocal performances are hilarious, there’s something missing by not being able to watch them as the complete package as the HBO special does. The recorder solos are funny, but watching them rock out onstage adds another level of fun. Even as they introduce Nigel before the song begins, you don’t get as much hearing the laughter of Nigel’s entrance as you do seeing Nigel dressed to the nines with a cello while the duo is chilling out in casual wear.

Then, on “Foux du Fafa,” watching the confusion as McKenzie’s character realizes Clements’ character doesn’t actually know French gives the song good context since the whole track is, well, in French. On studio albums, the group is more akin to bridging the gap between onstage charisma with the studio setting, but since this album is just a rip from the recorded special, the transition is not as clean. 

After all of the quips and punchlines have ended, the end result is a comedic victory lap for Flight of the Conchords, who have retained their wit and relevance. They’re as much fun as ever and have made a worthwhile collection of old hits and new laughs. 

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Grade: B

Carl "CJ" Zabat is a music columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here. 

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