Thursday, August 02, 2007

John Hadfield

If I were a kid, John Hadfield would be someone who I would camp out overnight to buy tickets for. Well, that's probably not a good thing for kids to do... I mean, the camping part is fine, but waiting in line all night for concert tickets isn't typically the most wholesome activity. Then again, maybe you can talk your Scoutmaster into having the next Boy Scout campout in the parking lot in front of Ticketmaster instead of at Lake Wikihaha. Then it might be alright...

But do people even do that anymore... sleep out for concert tickets? I used to do that once in a while, but it got to the point where I'd tell a friend, "Dude, I slept out for Soundgarden tickets last night and got seats in the 10th row!" and then he'd be like, "I called in for tickets this morning and got 8th row." And it's probably even more like that now with internet ticket sales available. I'm not sure that the idea of sleeping out and forming a line at the ticket window is really much of a guarantee of the best seats anymore.

But anyway, John Hadfield... Yeah, he's like the performing equivalent of Elvis, David Copperfield, Steve Martin and Bozo the Clown. In his show he sings, cracks jokes, does magic tricks, walks on stilts, clowns, bakes pies, carves wood sculptures with chainsaws while juggling them... you name it. Well, maybe he doesn't quite do all of that, but it sure is a heck of a variety, and you can tell from his promo video (see below) that he does it all with great flair and creativity.

John Hadfield is another example of goofiness being alive and well in children's entertainment. His latest album, Robot Monkey Head, is full of goofy songs and silly noises and is altogether quite delightful. I can imagine some snooty kids' music aficionado somewhere pooh-poohing this kind of material, and I can only feel sad for their lack of humor and sense of kids' sensibilities when it comes to what really entertains them. As I said in the Barry Louis Polisar article, most kids will eat that goofy and silly stuff right up.

The opening title track is kind of weird as it describes John's earnest desire for a battery-powered, life-size, wireless robot monkey head. He patters the words over mysterious synthesized beats, reminding me of a cross between Oingo Boingo and Falco. There are some amusingly bizarre lines like, "You'd be my missing link. Your neck leaks when you drink," and "I'd tell you funny knock-knock jokes and demonstrate karate, but you could never punch or kick, 'cause you don't have a body." Clearly, John has tapped into the brains of kids and is giving them the kind of absurdist humor that they love to discover and are apt to repeat over and over.

Musically, John seems to have a dual personality. About half of the songs on Robot Monkey Head are in a style that is sort of 80's rock/pop/techno/synth oriented, and the other half are folky/bluegrass/acoustic in nature. He probably could have split them up, added a few more tracks of each kind, and made two entirely separate albums, and you might think they were made by two completely different artists. But sequenced as they are, going back and forth between one style or the other, you eventually get used to it and accept the dichotomy. And kids, of course, are able to change gears on a dime, so I can't imagine that being any problem for them.

Much as I love rock and various incarnations of that, my preference for this album is actually for the folkier songs. I think they are far more cohesive and enduring, with the synth rock songs sounding a bit dated and disjointed at times. But to say something sounds "dated" is another thing that's probably more relevant to adults... kids won't necessarily have the same frame of reference to think, oh that's so (insert year here).

The first of the folky tunes is "Uncle Tony's Dentures", with a knee-slapping country hook and a funny story about where those dang teeth could've got to. "I Like Beans" is next and has a great "Shaving Cream" misdirection, where you're expecting one word and get another. Yes, this is in essence a fart song, and a great one at that, so be forewarned that there will likely be squeals of laughter induced in your children should they be allowed to hear this. I say "should they be allowed to hear this" because I know there are some parents out there who try to limit the "crude humor" that their kids are exposed to. I don't hear that too much in relation to kids' music, but quite often in relation to kids' movies and TV shows, so I'm sure it translates through all children's media, or at least, it should. I suppose limiting the intake of crude humor isn't a bad idea, and I certainly have no right to question what anyone thinks is good or bad for their kids.

But let's face it... farts are funny. The combination of the sound and the smell makes for a unique experience that is virtually irresistible as comic fodder. Of course, the timing and the character involved often has something to do with whether it's funny or just plain gross. I'm thinking of the Monty Python sketch where the Queen of England is at a very formal event and excuses herself to the bathroom, and then you hear all kinds of gaseous expulsions... That's hilarious, because the Queen is so prim and proper. But on the other hand, your weird Uncle Frank, who already smells a little strange to begin with, asking kids to pull his finger... that probably falls under the "just plain gross" category. But farts are the great equalizer of all humanity... rich, poor, young, old, men, women, beautiful, not-so-beautiful... Everyone farts, or at least has farted at some point. So why should bodily humor like that be considered off-limits for kids? I'm amused to think of some parents who might be diligent about keeping crude humor completely away from their kids, but who themselves enjoyed the Austin Powers movies, or who were among the well-dressed adult audience who were laughing uproariously at George Carlin's fart routine when I saw him at an upper-scale theatre venue in New York. In other words, apparently kids are just too young to really appreciate the intricate sophistication of fart humor?? Yeah, that must be it.

"The Duct Tape Festival" is the next folky tune and is a Charlie Daniels style story song about a very real festival held every year in Avon, Ohio. I love the rolling melody and plaintive feel of the song, as if his very happiness depends on whether he will attend and how many duct tape jackets and wallets he will be able to sell. My favorite of the folk tunes is next with the very catchy "Bad for the Roads, but Good on Chicken" (see video below), discussing the pros and cons of salt and featuring a funny-sounding local-yokel background chorus singing "good on chicken!" The song includes some poultry-insensitive lyrics like, "If it's icy when I go for a ride, and I hit some chickens when I start to slide, I pull out my sodium chloride, 'cause it sure tastes good on chicken." John is careful, though, in the final verse, to recognize that some may not like to eat their feathered friends, while asserting his own pleasure in doing so: "Now chicken is a food that's good to eat, unless you're a vegan or you don't eat meat. So keep your chickens out of the street, 'cause you know I love my chicken!"

The last of the folk songs is the very clever "The Rhyming Song", which like all the others is very memorable and employs another lyrical misdirection, playing beautifully with our rhyme scheme expectations.

Highlights among the rock/synth tunes include "Stink Monkey", a nice modern retelling of the old Struvelpeter German stories my mother used to tell me, showing the consequences of what happens when you don't bathe or brush your teeth; "Bunny Foo Foo", with an unlikely bully character in a Tone Loc groove; "Best Friends", which adds yet another unique take on the idea of imaginary friends; and "Ready, Fire, Aim!", which has a great message about thinking first before you speak or act on something. That's a very cool tune in its own right,
though it seems a little out of place in its style and approach, being rather serious and sounding more like modern punk or like Neil Young when he turns on the heavy distortion.

Musically, Robot Monkey Head is sort of like having a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich. They are both great sandwiches on their own, but a little strange put together. But John's humor, charm and engagingly goofy voice are the glue that bind it all together (mmm... peanut butter, tuna fish and glue!), and considering the subject matter is often pretty strange, it ends up working just perfectly.

John Hadfield website

I usually include MP3 samples with my features, but I really want to encourage you to see John's great video promo below, which includes several samples from his songs.

"Bad for the Roads, but Good on Chicken" live video (below)


Stefan said...

"I can imagine some snooty kids' music aficionado somewhere pooh-poohing this kind of material, and I can only feel sad for their lack of humor and sense of kids' sensibilities when it comes to what really entertains them."

Not to put too fine a point on it, Eric, but are there any snooty kids' music aficionados? 'Cuz I really don't know of any...

Eric Herman said...

It certainly seems like a silly notion... some adult sitting in their leather wingback chair wearing a smoking jacket, with a brandy glass full of chocolate milk and a bubble pipe in hand, listening to Cow Pie Radio and shuddering in disgust, then jotting angry notes feverishly on a tiny notepad... But the Anton Egos and Simon Cowells of kids' music may indeed be out there somewhere writing their manifestos on kids' music for Rolling Stone that will finally set the world right. :o)

Silly Bus said...

Very Interesting blog with interesting videos..