“How about the power…to move you?” JB asks in one of innumerable lewd insinuations regarding Tenacious D’s sexcapades on their new self-titled album. With moments like this and many others proclaiming the duo’s greatness, Tenacious D is not short on definitive statements. The band claims to be the greatest band on Earth with such confidence and regularity that it’s difficult to determine if they actually believe it. With only a sparse arrangement of acoustic guitars and sweet harmonies to seduce us, we may start believing that these two fat men know something we don’t. You’ve already met JB (a.k.a. Jack Black), an experienced show stealer who’s appeared in films like Hi-Fidelity. Black, though, isn’t waiting for the blockbuster that will put him on Hollywood’s shortlist; he’s half of the greatest rock duo of our time, perhaps of all time. With Black on vocals and rhythm guitar and Kyle Gass on lead guitar and harmonies (who goes by the moniker “KG”), Tenacious D is a rock band that is prepared to “change the face of music.”
Tenacious D (the name nabbed from a Marv Alberts’s pro-basketball commentary) depends on a mixture of comedic gags and lovable instrumentation to produce their well-crafted schtick. Singing with their sex hanging out, the duo constantly return to the subject of their own virility: “My kielbasa sausage has just got to perform/Now fuckin’ get it on!” They cover the spectrum of sexual subject matter, from “hard fucking” to “cock push-ups,” from oral and anal sex to Cleveland steamers. Experiencing the D is akin to a child listening spellbound while an older brother brags in hushed tones of his sexual encounters, whether true or not. The D’s comedy also requires an entirely inappropriate amount of swearing (to the point of near comic genius), perpetual proclamations of musical greatness, and the frequent display of JB’s abusive and rampant ego meeting KG’s humble submissiveness. What is most surprising and amusing about the D, though, is that they are spectacular musicians. Song provides their vehicle for comedy and the tunes are so catchy that listening to the same routine repeatedly doesn’t ever get old.
Tenacious D features songs that most hardcore D fans already know from their live performances and, with the exception of a missing “Stairway to Heaven” riff in “Tribute,” older favorites have gone largely unchanged. Most importantly, the D has survived their major label debut with the integrity of their vulgarity intact. No one can swear quite like JB, like on “Fuck Her Gently” (“Then I’m gonna love you completely, and then I’ll fuckin’ fuck you discreetly”) or “Karate” (“With karate I’ll kick your ass, from here to Tienneman Square/Oh yeah motherfucker, I’m gonna kick fuckin’ derrier, yeah-ee-yeah-aw”). But while the D has made it to Epic without compromising their crassness, they have significantly changed their music. With the help of an all-star cast of studio musicians which includes Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Page McConnell (Phish), Warren Fitzgerald (the Vandals), and Steve McDonald (Red Kross), the D has switched from their double acoustic format to a full-band format. The change is quite a surprise considering their consistent onstage insistence that they will never add a third member. The full-band sound eclipses the importance of KG, who formerly ran the instrumental end of things (“Kyle’s fingers be silver, Jack’s voice then be gold”). Though his distinct harmonies and acoustic guitar are still present, added drums, electric guitar, bass guitar, and occasional keyboards often permeate his sound. Without KG’s acoustic in the foreground of every song, his presence on the record fades, as does the D’s duo status.
The full-band sound allows some of the humor to dissolve as well. What once was a ridiculous claim to ruling rock n’ roll with only acoustic guitars has now become serious business. Introducing percussion and electricity catapults the band into a class with hundreds of rock bands, some of which have a much more legitimate claim of “greatest rock n’ roll band on Earth.” The D, however, goes overboard with their additional instruments. Their songs now range from sweet ballads complete with strings to fast punk riffs like “Explosivo.” In a way, the production is so overbloated (compliments of the Dust Brothers) that the D has managed to continue the joke in their over-the-top style. But will new listeners get the joke, and will old listeners be turned off by the new sound?
Conspicuously absent from the record are classic D faves like “Ben Vereen (Way to Be),” “Bowie,” “Special Thing,” and “Jesus Ranch.” Their absence is redeemed, however, by a tasty smattering of new skits between the songs that exhibit the blatant sadomasochistic relationship between JB and KG. “Friendship” roams freely from friendship to fighting bears to the last line, “As long as there’s a record deal, we’ll always be friends.” The album, of course, has classic D tracks like “Double Team” (a.k.a. “Sex Supreme”) and “Kyle Quit.” The video for “Fuck Her Gently” (animated by the creators of Ren & Stimpy) depicts JB and KG as cherubs who counsel Satan on the finer points of seduction while the two take turns performing oral sex on Satan’s sexual partner—welcome back to the nastier side of the D. While their MTV-bound clip for “Wonderboy” will likely forgo the porno angle, you can guarantee that perennial Video Awards winning director Spike Jonze will deliver a quirky video.
Tenacious D is meta-music, perpetually self-conscious and self-referential. If you think this is easy for a rock band, imagine if Bono kept singing about The Edge instead of love. The D does it all with sincerity and gusto, but the album, no matter how juiced with rock n’ roll machismo and JB ego, is still limited. JB and KG are a tag team following the classic comedy formula of funnyman/straightman. While we have no trouble telling that JB is a comic genius, KG’s humble response to his uncontrolled egoist antics add a second, equally hilarious dimension to the joke. The skits in between songs translate this to a certain degree, but only with the aid of visuals can the D truly fly as what they really are: a comedy act. Listening to the album provides some hearty laughs, but it feels a bit like listening to someone explain a comic strip out loud. The funniest moment on the record comes on the hidden track, when KG jams out on his acoustic and JB freestyles. This moment is rare on the album, which on the whole seems far-removed from the initial energy that conceived and performed these songs a couple years back.