For a band that’s made their name, as the best comedic musicians do, on seamlessly mixing genuine musical chops with side-splitting humor, Tenacious D’s latest record isn’t all that funny. That’s not to say that Rize of the Fenix is some sort of stony about-face – singer Jack Black’s rat-a-tat goofball mechanism has sure been stockpiling the dick jokes in the six years since The Pick of Destiny, and there’s feigned sincerity to spare – but The D of 2012 seems a lot more interested in rocking your face off. The Tenacious D of the duo’s HBO series and 2001′s self-titled debut album rocked, but there was always a layer of irony to the proceedings – their stock in trade was the false bravado of a pair of old-school rockers that you were never really sure believed in all their cocksure preening.
But they made a convincing argument for being a great band all the same – Jack Black’s go-for-broke vocals were exaggerated, sure, but they were dynamic and full-throated and indebted to the rock and metal greats all the same, while sideman Kyle Gass proved himself an acoustic dynamo with fleet-fingered solos and chiming harmonics to spare (not to mention a way with a plain-spoken but evocative harmony). On Tenacious D, the approach was simple: get in, bring the rock, bring the funny, get out. Like the best in satire and spoof, it evoked reverence for everything it lampooned even as it exaggerated familiar tropes for comedic effect.
Rize of the Fenix is a different beast. The material is largely presented with a straight face, or as straight a face as Black and Gass can muster. Tracks are fleshed out and allowed to breathe beyond their high concepts; and since Black commits wholeheartedly to the lyrical concepts, quick and easy laughter is largely avoided. This is the evolution of The D – between Jables’ energetic and elastic vocals, Kage’s intricate guitar theatrics, and ringer Dave Grohl’s pulverizing metal drums, they’re inching ever-closer to the lofty heights they’ve always jokingly aspired to. (On “Classical Teacher”, one of a mere two spoken interludes on Fenix, Black tells Kyle, “It’s like, yeah, we’re really good, we’re almost as good as Arcade Fire… we gotta leave those fuckers in the dust!”)
A key component in this evolution is the renewed focus on songwriting. If Rize of the Fenix is hit and miss on hilarious lyrical content, it’s spot-on in composition – the title track and “Deth Starr”, for example, are nerdy prog throwbacks that glide through multiple movements with genuine creativity and face-melting grace. “Senorita” is a tasty, melodramatic flamenco-rock take on a dripping-with-bravado desperado standoff; “Low Hangin’ Fruit” could easily be a Songs For the Deaf-era Queens of the Stone Age outtake, complete with honeyed harmonies and ’70s Aerosmith bridges; the mostly-acoustic “Roadie” sets the plight of the oft-forgotten stagehand to an ominous Zeppelin slow burn, with startlingly evocative results. On Rize of the Fenix, The D never sound like they’re taking the piss; armed with a re-energized sense of songcraft and a grab-bag of classic-rock tricks up their sleeve, the songs here could easily be mistaken for a deathly serious big-rock record. This is a key component to any self-respecting comedy musician’s aesthetic – The Lonely Island’s songs, for example, wouldn’t sound jokey if they weren’t about post-coital bliss and gift-wrapped penises, because they’re such potent approximations of modern pop.
And this is why Rize of the Fenix succeeds. In a sense, their sincerity is the joke – a song like “Roadie”, for example, is played completely straight-faced, but it’s the over-dramatization of the subject matter that sells the track – but actual quips are rare. There are inappropriately-placed profanities, of course, and I’m reasonably sure that dicks are mentioned at least once in every track – the album cover is, after all, a winged veiny dong rising from the ashes – but Tenacious D prove themselves talented songwriters, even in the face of such ribald buffoonery. They always wrote above-average rock tunes, but works as conceptual and pulverizing as “Rize of the Fenix” and “Low Hangin’ Fruit” stand, shockingly, on their own merits. Even the closing Springsteen pastiche, “39″, seems to veer into some legitimate sentimentality – Black’s full-bore coda comes at the tail end of a series of increasingly gross (and laugh-out-loud funny) anatomically-fixated jokes, but it’s imbued with a convincing approximation of Bruce’s rough-hewn, over-emotional wail, and it’s actually fairly stirring.
So, the Tenacious D of Rize of the Fenix aren’t quite as insidiously funny as they once were. That’s okay; beyond the punchlines, they’ve proven themselves capable of delivering a legitimately enjoyable big dumb rock record. And after the quips dry up, that’s ultimately more satisfying.