Subtlety is pretty non-existent in Tim Heidecker’s most well-known work, the wee-hour bong-hit variety show supreme, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! So when fans take Heidecker & Wood’s debut album for a spin (the other half of the duo is Tom Goes to the Mayor and Awesome Show music director Davin Wood), its relatively serious yacht rock underpinnings will come off as shockingly soft. But once the surprise wears off, Starting From Nowhere reveals itself as both a meticulously crafted homage to ’70s sensitive guy music and a calmly ridiculous bit of comedy. Take “Cross Country Skiing,” which opens the album. There aren’t any notable one-liners on the lyric sheet, but it’s an earnest folk song about a patently unexciting white person sport, and that’s funny. H&W employ the same quality melody/silly lyric formula as Tenacious D or Flight of the Conchords, but the comedy band duo comparisons end there. Heidecker’s delivery is soft and genuine, enough off-key to tell you he’s more comedian than vocalist, but bereft of any “hey, I’m being funny” elocution. This record is stuffed with clutch examples of bad lyric writing (my favs at the moment: “What are the questions we ask when we’re asking questions?” and “A canyon and a man can live in peace”), but they’re rarely spotlit, making them easy to miss the first time around. And that’s just fine with these guys. After all, Wood’s arrangements and melodies are such accomplished homages to Chicago, Steely Dan, Air Supply and Crosby Stills & Nash, chances are you’ll be humming along before you’re laughing out loud.
With Heidecker & Wood on the brain, I was inspired to revisit this album, undoubtedly the cheesiest, most uneven effort of Simon & Garfunkel’s rarely flawed partnership. (The inclusion of “Bleecker Street” on a season 4 episode of Mad Men also contributed to this unexpected urge.) Missing the literary folk boom by a couple years, the album tanked initially, going clang with an audience that was already following Dylan to bold new territory. And it would be understandable if anybody didn’t get past the first track, a cornball run-through of the hymn “You Can Tell the World” that’s exactly what Christopher Guest was making fun of with The New Main Street Singers. But the balance of the record holds up better than I remembered, from the endearing innocence of “Bleecker Street” to the harmonic showcases of “Benedictus” and “Peggy-O.” And, of course, the original, acoustic version of “The Sound of Silence,” whose elegance is evergreen. On the whole, Simon’s writing still needed a bit more polish, but it’s all too evident here that the duo already had wuss rock lightning in a bottle.
To round out what has become the softest Discman trilogy yet, it’s the second and arguably best effort from Mark Oliver Everett (aka “E”). After losing both his mother and sister in a short period of time, the one-man phenomenon behind Eels made a record that was understandably cynical and sad. And while Electro-Shock Blues might’ve been an open vein lyrically (e.g. “My life is shit and piss”), its music provided the balance necessary to make it a valuable document of the human condition. Among the many gorgeous acoustic ballads here, there’s the lurching Tom Waits rhythms and found sounds of “Cancer for the Cure,” the dance-folk Beck breaks of “Last Stop: This Town” and the sexy Morphine rumble of “Hospital Food.” Hence, by the time E admits to finding a new appreciation for being alive on the closing “P.S. You Rock My World,” you’re not only far from depressed – you’re wishing the whole beautiful thing wouldn’t end.