In the 1986 Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen’s
character Mickey Sachs, despondent over his failure to understand the purpose
of life, wanders into a revival house matinee of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.
It doesn’t take long before the simple joy of revisiting that 1933 classic
convinces him, once again, that life is worth living.
For me, Tenacious D - the musical duo of Jack Black (lead vocals, acoustic guitar) and Kyle Gass (lead guitar, harmony vocals) - inspires those exact same feelings. Their new album, Rize of the Fenix, offers the band’s first new material in six years. It’s a very welcome return.
For a while, it seemed possible that we had heard the last of Tenacious D. Their last high profile project, the 2006 theatrical film The Pick of Destiny, failed to make a significant commercial impact. The crushing disappointment of the film’s weak box office receipts was chronicled in D Tour: A Tenacious Documentary (available as part of The Complete Masterworks Part 2 on DVD and Blu-ray). The documentary captured the unvarnished depression displayed by Black and Gass as they launched a world tour to support the movie’s soundtrack.
The Pick of Destiny soundtrack, though not without strong tracks such as “Kickapoo” and "Beelzeboss (The Final Showdown),” was padded with underdeveloped mini-songs so directly tied to the plot of the film that they didn’t really stand on their own. For whatever reasons, the magic of their 2001 self-titled debut (and their still-riotous, painfully short-lived HBO series) was not fully captured in the feature film or on its soundtrack.
Fear not, devotees of the D, as the drought has finally come
to an end. Rize of the Fenix is a blast of classic Tenacious D, loaded with the
perfect combination of humorous lyrics and musical excellence. As the D gear up
for a new tour (beginning May 23rd in Santa Barbara, CA, with a full itinerary
on the band’s website), fans can expect a set list peppered with new gems.
The title track joins the ranks of ambitious, multi-part D epics along the lines of “City Hall” from their debut. The lyrics confront the abysmal reception of the movie in brutally frank terms. “All the critics said that the D was done/The sun had set and the chapter had closed,” Black sings, later musing that their fans will “have to laser off their D tattoos.” The song roars to a triumphant conclusion as a statement of never-say-die defiance.
The video for one of the album’s mini-songs, “To Be the Best,” is a short film that fills viewers in on what has transpired during the D’s downtime. It’s much better seen than explained, but suffice it to say that Black and Gass have some fun with the fact that Black’s movie stardom continued even after The Pick of Destiny was relegated to cult status. On the album, “The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage” elaborates further with a dramatic (yet, of course, tongue-in-cheek) narrative that outlines Gass’ post-Destiny mental breakdown.
The full-throttle rockers, including “Low Hangin’ Fruit” and “Deth Starr,” benefit from the tight rhythm section of John Spiker on bass and Dave Grohl on drums. Grohl has sat behind the kit for all the D’s albums and his work is as valuable throughout Fenix as it is on the earlier records. “Roadie” and “39” ride on the strength of the band’s ability to combine humor with sincerity. The former is a tip of the hat to the unsung heroes of any rock tour (the road crew), while the latter sings the praises of a woman knocking at the door of middle age.
Spoken word bits have been kept to a minimum, with only two such tracks gracing the album. While both are funny, best of the two is “Classical Teacher,” in which Gass faces the indignity of working with a guitar teacher at Black’s insistence. The combination of Black’s patented combustible impatience with Gass’ deadpan reactions makes bits like this worthy of repeated listening, rather than mere throwaway filler.
Hearing new Tenacious D music somehow manages to make the world a little more tolerable. Anyone who has dared write them off as a played-out joke is certainly entitled to his opinion. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from insisting that it’s an incorrect opinion.
Woody Allen’s Mickey Sachs emerged
from the cinema, having confronted the heart of darkness, healed by the power
of humor and artistry in Duck Soup. The D wield a similar type of power, and
just like the Marx Brothers they may not be for everyone. But for those who
cherish their brand of humor-driven rock, Rize of the Fenix, available May 15th,
will make a great soundtrack for the summer of 2012.