Brooks Wheelan – “This is Cool, Right?”

Grade: B+

Key Bits: “new york stuff” “saturday night live stuff”

There was a sketch on Saturday Night Live recently, but not too recently, that was a play on Family Feud. It was a network edition. On one side stood CBS – host Jimmy Fallon as Jim Parsons, Taran Killam as Ashton Kutcher, John Milhiser as Jon Cryer and Noel Wells as Alyson Hannigan. On the other side stood NBC – Justin Timberlake as Fallon, Kate McKinnon (praise) as Jane Lynch, Jay Pharoah as Ice-T, and Brooks Wheelan. As himself. An SNL cast member. At the time, I laughed at the meta-humor and focused on Timberlake jumping around onstage as Fallon. But, this sketch really defined Wheelan’s presence at SNL, as a comic who was both too grounded and too weird to exist in the NBC universe. And, after his quick firing, Wheelan is out on his own – making that discord work.

It isn’t perfect. Wheelan spends basically the whole album talking about his upbringing, hoping to bank on comedy experiences to bolster his next work. But, Wheelan’s presence as both a bro-comic and an absurdist is strong here, and it’s so conclusive that it’s almost tough to know what to make of him. Wheelan talks about being an incredibly awkward child, through his love of ranking people he knows through brackets without their knowledge, and delivers it in such a way that we all can sympathize, even though that’s beyond crazy. He talks about being the youngest of three brothers in a small Iowa town, but his NYC experiences elevate those memories past the small-town boy charm.

Wheelan might jump from a joke about his brothers pranking him to a bit about how JFK really died from terrible rat breath and that the government covered it up; it’s an elaborate stand-up presence, one that shows that Wheelan is still finding his exact, specific footing.

Where Wheelan’s strengths lie, ironically, is in trying to find out exactly who he is as a comedian. The best bits he delivers on this album are family related – reacting to his father killing a possum with a rock in the garage, dipping his balls in a bottle of Scope that his older brothers used – but he also responds with absolutely unexpected reactions. He ends with pitching all his unused SNL sketches – most of which are weird, cerebral and outlandish (and outstanding, naturally).

He pitches at least eight sketches that SNL didn’t pick up, including a “Field of Dreams” where the players are Nazis, a pair of 109 year old grandfathers who are given Spencer’s gift cards, and an Australian tourist in America who can’t stop saying that Steve Irwin’s death was their 9/11. It’s brilliantly and delightfully weird, just the type of weird that could permeate SNL without making any waves. And on the album, Wheelan sounds a little resentful of his brief time at the show. He wasn’t on air much, and it sounds like it was a struggle on both sides to get his work up. Most of his failed sketches are brilliant, but just not the type to succeed on SNL, and his weird hybrid comedy just couldn’t survive there.

SNL has a history of passing on goldmines – Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Louis CK and Larry David all had brief stints at the show before leaving unceremoniously. Wheelan never struck out to me much on SNL, but it might be because he never got his chance to. But on his own terms, on a debut album, he’s completely convincing. Wheelan is the bro-absurdist that could bridge gaps we didn’t know could be bridged.

If you like this, try: Kumail Nanjiani’s “Beta Male.” Kumail’s experiences growing up are decidedly different (Iowa v. Pakistan), but his content and delivery is similar to Wheelan’s.

Lana Del Ray – “Ultraviolence”

ultraviolenceGrade: A-

Key Tracks: “Cruel World” “West Coast”

“Ultraviolence” is a slow album. It’s easy to overlook the album as a long, long wick attached to a room full of fireworks, burning slowly and ending before the big bang. But to look at “Ultraviolence” like that is to ignore the music’s subtleties, and the complexity of the album’s subject matter. “Ultraviolence” is a dark record, one that examines a woman who tries to ride her way to the top, but never excels past being “The Other Woman” (as evidenced by the final track). Given Del Ray’s recent, questionable comments on feminism, the album isn’t a critique on women in society today as much as it is a semi-personal narrative. It helps to strengthen the cinematic quality of the album. And it doesn’t hurt that Del Ray’s vocals are stronger this time around, rationing out a few strong performances across the album.

The album’s opener, “Cruel World,” is also the longest, at 6:39. It’s a building and intricate song, one that sets the tone by really taking it’s time to get to an engaging climax. It’s a slightly captivating song, and an unexpected one to open an album, even for Del Ray. What follows is a number of polarizing songs – sometimes engaging, other times putting up a strong barrier. Nearly all of them are a medium tempo, which should be a distraction or even a boredom, but when almost every song has it’s own identity, it doesn’t even matter. The only real exception is the excellent “West Coast,” full of tempo changes and a low-key funk that isn’t present anywhere else on the record.

Del Ray’s lyrics focus on struggling to find your identity and struggling to find success, accepting defeat in both. They’re typically dark – with titles like “Old Money,” “Pretty When You Cry,” and, of course, “Fucked My Way to the Top.” They call back memories to the pratfalls of luxury in the 20′s-50′s, even with modern references and a decidedly more provocative and profane tone. And her vocals are stronger; she’s allowed herself to open up and expand her range. “Shades of Cool” finds her in a high pitch, alternating between beautiful and off-setting. “Money Power Glory” is another track where her voice flourishes in big, grand ways. She’s often cooled down, but the rare times when she wants to take control – she does. These rare moments highlight the album’s otherwise restrained times, both benefits.

The album is bolstered by fine production, as well, courtesy mainly of Dan Auerbach (singer for the Black Keys and producer of everyone). The production is borderline cavernous, adding a faint echo and an ungraspable dark feeling throughout. It’s slickly produced – but not to the point where it’s actually pop.

“Anti-pop” isn’t a phrase, outside of a long forgotten Primus album, but it’s almost something that could describe Del Ray. With meandering tempos, cinematic music, dated lyrics and often 5+ minute lengths, her songs aren’t designed for radio. Yet they’re distinctly pop, a type of dream-pop. It’s melodic, and catchy, but in a low-key way. It isn’t possible to dance to this (as we now know, thanks to SNL). Like Nico long before her, and Lorde shortly after, Del Ray’s pop music is one of depth and density, not one of rapidity and popularity. You probably have a strong opinion of Del Ray, good or bad, and “Ultraviolence” isn’t going to change that. But it’s a strong pop release, ripe for analysis, and an improvement over her still notable debut. Like her or not, Del Ray’s strongest quality has been her ability to establish a persona in no time. And “Ultraviolence” really runs with it.

-By Andrew McNally

The Lonely Island – “The Wack Album”

Photo Credit: Pitchfork

Photo Credit: Pitchfork

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “I F****d My Aunt,” “The Compliments”

“The Wack Album” is more of an amalgamate of ideas. The band throws a lot of ideas at the wall,and as soon as one starts to get stale, they move on to the next. Not everything works, but some stick very well. Only two tracks from this album were viral sensations from “SNL,” a show which none of the three members are a part of anymore. This has allowed them to expand into some new territories, with mixed results.

Comedy troupes that spoof hip-hop are certainly not a new thing. It is a very tired route for comedians to take, thanks to the Internet. The Lonely Island were by no means one of the first groups to do it, but they were among the first of the Internet era (remember “Lazy Sunday”? The song aired on “SNL” eight years ago). The Lonely Island have come under the ironic problem of having to sidestep the generic hip-hop parodies that they helped spawn. “The Wack Album,” their third full-length, has its hits and misses. The guest list on the album is as expansive as anyone could possible ask for: Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, the return of T-Pain, Kendrick Lamar, Adam Levine, Kristin Wiig and Hugh Jackman, among others. The guest stars, all having fun in the studio, help to add to the album’s theme of spoofing the very foundations of hip-hop.

The best bits on the album are the ones that have the simplest concepts. “The Compliments” is the three band members – Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone – simply complimenting each other, making fun of insult songs. The song features the best guest spot, from rapper Too $hort, who has no idea what he is doing there. “Meet the Crew” is a parody of rappers constantly saying their own names in songs by being a band introduction with many, crazy personalities (ending with Rod Stewart, played by Samberg). “I F****d My Aunt” has the band members (and T-Pain) recounting childhood memories and following them up with “and [x] years later I f****d my aunt.” It’s an incredibly simple concept with no context, and works well because of it. The album’s best tracks all share this.

The more inventive and inspired bits actually do not work as well here. “YOLO” and “3-Way” are well thought-out, but regular “SNL” viewers are already familiar with those two tracks. “I Run NY” features Samberg rapping from the perspective of NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg. The song’s inspiration was, inventively so, to spoof all NYC rappers that claim to own the city. But the song falls flat as it quickly becomes a bit about Bloomberg saying profane things he would never say normally. “I Don’t Give a Honk” and “Hugs” cancel each out, as both songs are about replacing the F-word with a safer term, neither of which are very funny. Finally, “Diaper Money” is rapping from the perspective of a married man, but a very profane one, and it all doesn’t really make sense. The Lonely Island have never been ones to stray away from crude and bodily humor (“Dick In a Box” won them an Emmy), which is why the more inspired ideas end up missing. The characters themselves tend not to make sense. “The Wack Album” is at it’s best when the trio, guests or not, are stripped down and working solely with funny concepts.

If You like this, try: “The Sounds of Science,” the Beastie Boys box set that contains some of their lesser-known funny songs. Another white trio from NY that revolutionized comedy-rap.

-By Andrew McNally