Last time around, when I was discussing Weird Al's Bad Hair Day, I talked about how it was the quintessential Yankovic album of my childhood, the one I owned, so I was quite familiar with it. Well, 1999's Running with Scissors happens to be the quintessential album of my brother's childhood, and it was the one Weird Al album he owned, so I am fairly familiar with it as well. These two records are the two I had heard in their entirety before starting this quest to go through Weird Al's entire discography. So, I bring a lot of knowledge into this. However, from this point forward, I have little to no awareness of Al's output. It is almost all going to be new to me, so that's exciting. However, first I must delve into Running with Scissors, which, based on my memories, I was more than content to do.
First, before I get into the music, I want to discuss the album cover art. It features a humorous photo of Al running on a track in running gears, scissors triumphantly lifted over his head. That's not what is most notable, however. This is the first album Weird Al released after he had his She's All That style makeover. Gone were his trademark glasses, his sort of perm, and his mustache. Now, he lacks cranium accessories (way to be, Mitch Hedberg) and his hair is longer. He basically just looks like the Music Geek from the old TV show Beat the Geeks. Side note: According to Wikipedia, there was a The Simpsons geek once. So, Antonio Lopez, if you are out there, I will throw down with you anytime, anywhere. I am sure you are a worthy foe, but I fear nobody on the battlefield of Simpsons knowledge. Anyway, I prefer Al's new look. It is less idiosyncratic, sure, but by 1999 he was a household name with a devoted fan base. He didn't need a visual hook. He just looks like a laid back dude with long hair. Because that's what he is, more or less. Maybe I should talk about the music now?
I shall begin, like I did with Bad Hair Day, with the first song from Running with Scissors. Although, I'd kind of like to just talk about "Amish Paradise" some more. I kept thing about that song after listening to it for the last article, and it just grows in stature in my mind. It might be the most successful of all Weird Al songs. However, in terms of ambition, "The Saga Begins" is greater than or equal to any other Yankovic parody. An homage to "American Pie" that legendary Madonna song, Weird Al operates under the guise of Obi-Wan Kenobi and sings about the happening of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Sure, in retrospect pretty much everybody thinks that movie is awful, but it was a huge pop culture event, the kind of event Al could not resist tackling in song.
If I recall correctly, Al wrote the song based almost entirely off of internet rumors, and was quite successful in doing so. Here's a suggestion for anybody out there. If you are thinking about watching Episode I, just listen to "The Saga Begins" instead. It will likely be more enjoyable, and it takes a lot less time out of your day. This is a really good parody song. It's catchy, although Yankovic owes that mostly to Don McLean, and the lyrics are funny. When Weird Al is doing songs where he is telling stories from movies, such as "Gump," he mostly has to succeed through word choice. He has to figure out a way to express the plot points in a humorous, engaging fashion. He succeeds here. Much like "Yoda," "The Saga Begins" is one of my favorite Weird Al parodies. And I'm not even much of a Star Wars fan. Call me when Al does a song about Repo Man.
There is another strong parody on this album in "It's All About the Pentiums," a parody of "It's All About the Benjamins," by Puff Daddy aka Diddy aka Sean "Puffy" Combs aka The Southern Dandy. Early Weird Al parodies of rap songs were clunky, but eventually Al settled into not really rapping, and into choosing songs where he could get away with it. By doing this, Weird Al's flow is not distracting when trying to listen to the song. In fact, it works quite well, as he boasts about his prowess with computers, and disses some straw man with a lousy computer and a penchant for downloading pictures of Sarah Michelle Gellar. Whenever I hear her name, it reminds me of a joke from Venture Bros. where the lead singer from Depeche Mode is rifling through girlie mags at a yard sale and excited proclaims, "Buffy's Sarah Michelle Gel-LAWR." I have never actually seen her act in anything.
Anyway, the song is catchy and quite enjoyable. The lyrics are funny, even if there is a pretty arch Helen Keller joke in there (although as a child it was a bold notion to me), and the song has good energy. Although, as previously mentioned with "The Saga Begins" this is more about the original. However, kudos are due for Weird Al and his band for mimicking the songs well and giving just enough of a twist to be original.
There are three more parodie to be discussed. One is "Grapefruit Diet" which is a parody of "Zoot Suit Riot" a relic of the brief swing music trend. It certainly is a song that exists. That may encompass it. There's nothing really special or detrimental about it. The song is alright. It just sort of washed over me. It's about partaking in a grapefruit diet to lose weight. The music doesn't grab me because I don't really like swing. It is what it is. Now, the next parody, "Pretty Fly for a Rabbi," a parody of The Offspring's "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)," is much more polarizing to me. The original is a dumb, dumb song that traffics in broad, lame jokes. Unfortunately, at times Yankovic's song does the same thing.
The song is about a rabbi who is quite popular and much beloved in his community. You know, like Krusty the Klown's father. However, it also is made up mostly of jokes derived from Jewish stereotypes. Some of them are less than glowing stereotypes as well. There is, after all, a portion of the song dedicated to the rabbi haggling the price of an object down. Now, I think Yankovic is at least partially of Jewish descent, in ethnicity as opposed to religion, but this is still precarious territory to navigate, and I don't know if Al really succeeds. Sure, it is mostly quite silly, and the rabbi is being lauded throughout, but it still makes a lot of it fall flat. Also, the chorus of this song grates at me. It's not the worst Weird Al parody. Some of it is funny, and a few jokes do hit, but overall it does not leave me enthused. However, there is a joke in this song I did not understand back in 1999 that I get now. It is about the rabbi keeping the tip after a bris. This is not necessarily a joke I am happy to understand.
The remaining parody is "Jerry Springer" a parody of the idiosyncratic "One Week" by Barenaked Ladies. Finally, Weird Al can have a strange flow to his vocal stylings and have it make sense. Although, he actually may sound better than the Barenaked Ladies' singer. This song is about all the awful things Weird Al sees on the show, and how he can't pry himself away from watching it. As such, it is quite ribald, mentioning all sort of sordid sexual congress. It's a pretty funny song and all in all it is fine. Maybe he could have taken the knives out a bit more for something like The Jerry Springer Show, but that's not really Al's way. Unless you're Billy Ray Cyrus.
Now, on to the rest of the album. There's a couple songs to just get out of the way. First, "Polka Power" which is a fine polka medley, but one very indicative of the era. Here is just a sampling of bands covered in this song: Spice Girls, Harvey Danger, Backstreet Boys, Chumbawumba, Smashmouth, Marcy Playground, and Semisonic. Then, there is the theme song to The Weird Al Show which is a humorous, absurdist theme song from his old kid's show that fills about 70 seconds of the album. I wish I had stronger memories of The Weird Al Show so that I could discuss it to some degree in this series of essays. Alas, I did not watch it with any regularity, and have only fleeting memories of it. Maybe I was too busy watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Saturday mornings.
Onward and upward as I take on the originals. I shall discuss them in order of quality. First, and least, is "Germs" which is a "style parody" of Nine Inch Nails, even if it sounds a lot like "Terrible Lie" which is, I think, the name of a Nine Inch Nails song. It's about a guy who is quite worried about germs and fears them and obsesses over them and such. Alas, part of the issue here for me is that, while the protagonist of this song is excessive in his concerns about germs and bacteria, the song does remind you of just how much germs and bacteria there is all over the place, which is not exactly a pleasant thing to have on the brain. Plus, it isn't terribly funny. It's an original concept for Weird Al, which I do like to point out since he had done so many albums at this point, but that's not enough to make it more than an acceptable, mediocre ditty.
Speaking of original concepts, next up is "My Baby's in Love with Eddie Vedder." I bet few people saw this song concept coming from anybody in 1999, but leave it to the pop culture loving Weird Al Yankovic to broach the subject and maybe inspiring a Portlandia sketch. The song's subject is right there in the title. Weird Al's love is infatuated with the slacker, grudge aesthetic of the lead singer of Pearl Jam. By 1999, this qualified as nostalgia. Anyway, Weird Al is irked, and in the end he vows to stalk Alanis Morrisette in retribution. Isn't it ironic? The song has a few funny lyrics, and the concept is amusing and executed fairly well, but it doesn't really stick out to me. It's pretty good, even if you are like me and the only Pearl Jam song you've ever heard is "Jeremy."
"Truck Drivin' Song" is short, to the point, and has one joke to it. The song has a country vibe to it, and Yankovic sings in a deep voice as the truck driver at the center of the story. It is straightforward stuff until the lyrics, "Driving a truck with my high heels on." At this point the singer starts discussing all the feminine things they are wearing and expresses their concerns about their mascara running. The joke is either one of two things. Either this seemingly burly truck driver is, in actuality, a lady. Or, the trucker is indeed a burly man, but they are also a cross dresser. I think it is the latter. One, because this is a funnier, more absurd concept. In this case, it is basically just a different flavor of Monty Python's "Lumberjack Song." Two, because Weird Al mentions a pink angora sweater, which reminded me of Ed Wood, which seems like a specific reference. So, in essence, the joke of this song is that it sounds like the Canyonero jingle but the truck driver is dressed like a woman. This is, in and of itself, not terribly humorous, but it is the attention to detail that lifts its quality.
Even in Weird Al's eclectic oeuvre, "Albuquerque" sticks out. Maybe someday this song will be in an episode if Breaking Bad. Couldn't Badger and Skinny Pete listen to it? This song is a whopping 11:23 and it is barely a song. It is basically a spoken word monologue with some music playing in the background, aside from a couple of times when Weird Al sings the name of the titular city. "Albuquerque" takes Al's affinity for absurdity and bizarre jokes and stretches it out into a shaggy dog story. There is no throughline, it is just a bunch of nonsense, but it is funny nonsense. In particular, I enjoys the part of the song where Al talks about the guy who "hadn't had a bite" in a while, and in a twist on an old joke he bites the guy in the jugular vein and he screams as he bleeds to death. Oh, it's dark, but it is really funny. Much as in "Everything You Know is Wrong" sometimes Al's lyrical choices don't really work and feel like madlibs, but there are subsections of the song that are funny. Plus, even at over 11 minutes, it doesn't drag. "Albuquerque" isn't something to listen to repeatedly, but it is enjoyable to hear every now and then.
Lastly, it's "Your Horoscope for Today." It's a ska song where Weird Al lets us all know our horoscopes, and they are pretty much all really funny. It's a mix of absurdity and dark humor. For example, one of them is about how your friends are conspiring about you behind your back so you should kill them. Another suggests you never leave your house again. It is sharp stuff comedy wise, and fun to listen to. There is also a part of the song where Al sets aside time to assure the listener than horoscopes are not, as it would appear to anybody who is not an idiot, complete horseshit. "Your Horoscope for Today" may be the funniest of all of Weird Al's originals. It's not necessarily his best in total, I'd have to ponder that, but it is really good.
As of my last essay, Bad Hair Day was my favorite Weird Al album I had heard. Now, I think Running with Scissors may hold that crown. At the very least, they are 1 and 1a. Neither album has a weak song, although they don't all hit, and both have a couple of really strong cuts. Both succeed at parody and at originals. However, Running with Scissors may be more impressive musically. It sounds better and is catchier, and the instrument work is good. In particular, Al gets the chance to bust out his accordion to a greater degree than in any album of recent vintage, and the guitar riff at the end of "Albuquerque" is impressive. Then, he ends that song with a burp. Sometimes, Al just can't resist some juvenility.
To a degree, it makes sense that the best Weird Al albums I've heard are the most recent. I mean, it suggests Yankovic and company getting better at what they do and improving their skills. However, we all know in music bands don't always follow a linear progression model. Think of how many bands where their first album is consider their best. On the other hand, that seems to be usually because bands run out of ideas or get tired of dealing with one another or they do drugs or they point guns at Stephen Malkmus or what have you. That's not the case with Weird Al and friends. I'm quite intrigued as I go forward into the uncharted waters of Weird Al's albums of the new millennium. Will this continue? Will Weird Al Yankovic's albums continue to impress and improve? Or have I reached his pinnacle? The future is unwritten.