In Search Of...
You know Tenacious D? No? But you know Tenacious D singer Jack Black, the guy who played the extroverted record store clerk in High Fidelity? No? We'll back up. Tenacious D are two fat dudes with acoustic guitars who bill themselves as the Greatest Band in the World but play only poorly attended open-mike nights. Their stock-in-trade is complex metal epics performed without any metal. What he lacks in Marshall stacks Black makes up in shtick--imagine Robin Williams able to stay in character without visibly delighting in his own skills. The gap between what they think they're doing and what they're actually doing is the key. Their delusion is as complete as their failure. Nothing deters them.
In 1999 Black and partner Kyle Gass made six Tenacious D mini-movies for HBO. The movies are face-hurtingly funny and made the D the stars they imagined they were. That summer they sold out the House of Blues as quickly as a charting rock band, though they had no releases to chart. In 2001 Black and Gass made an actual album for Epic, backed by Dave Grohl and members of Redd Kross and Phish. As the dream metal became real metal, the concept lost most of its punch. The album's not inept--if anything, it's too accomplished. The tension between desire and desired is gone.
That's what N*E*R*D's In Search Of... is like. N*E*R*D is the "artist" manifestation of super-duper-producers the Neptunes. You know the Neptunes, right? Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams from Virginia? No? Jay-Z's "Give It 2 Me," Britney's "I'm a Slave 4 U," Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass," 'N Sync's "Girlfriend" remix? The dude in the baseball cap who seems to be in every video ever? That's Pharrell.
In 1998 their first tune, Noreaga's "Superthug," became a choice cut for MTV interstitials, and they've been the most overworked producers in Christendom since. They worked across the board from the start, hopping from Ol' Dirty Bastard to Ben Harper, Mystikal to Prince, Kid Rock to Garbage. Sometime in 2000 the Masonic brotherhood of pop music decided that a pop record without a Neptunes beat was not worth bothering with, and the two began to live in the studio, only emerging to buy vintage muscle cars.
The Neptunes mainline the aesthetic kick of the digital disposable, which is somehow never disposed of and simultaneously always newer than new. Their production algorithm reduces a backing track to the three mostest ultra-britest keyboard notes and the two most enormous drum sounds and then presents them with the self-renewing fury of a can-crushing machine. But the 'Tunes were worn out inside their own paradigm before 2001 even started. By last year's Philly's Most Wanted album, they were recycling themselves, which is fine, but they didn't even choose their own best bits. Even the casual listener could hear they wanted out.
So they called up their friend Shay (shades of Madness's Chas Smash, the "spirit" member with no known musical skill who somehow has to be there), renamed themselves N*E*R*D (stands for No-one Ever Really Dies, or so they say, though their logo is a disembodied brain), and made the first version of In Search Of..., which I first heard at the home of one of their lawyers during a Hanukkah celebration in 2000. The tracks seemed of a piece with their other work: computer music played with the offhand vibe of a garage rock band but rendered in hypercrisp digital sound, not so much recorded as punched out of sheet metal. The lyrics were not the same old same old, though. "Lapdance" compares politicians to strippers, "Provider" is what Bob Seger sounds like to someone who missed classic rock the second and third times around, and "Run to the Sun" is one of those dreamy soul-folk tunes that people would pay $100 for at Dusty Groove if some half-baked sideman had recorded it in the 70s. Pharrell, here as elsewhere, sounds mostly like someone singing along with someone else. His style is all head and breath, confident because he doesn't seem to know anybody is listening.
And that's exactly what made the album appealing the first time I heard it--its one-take, doing-it-in-the-dark vibe. But Virgin didn't release the album, and they kept on not releasing it. Did they want Noreaga part two? Kelis part ten? N*E*R*D sat out much of 2001, though the Neptunes spent much of it in the Top Ten. (You'd think that would reassure a label.) Suddenly, in August, the album came out in Europe. Chad Hugo: "We didn't know it had shipped in Europe. So we went to [now departed Virgin copresident] Ashley [Newton] and said, 'We want to redo it,' and he said, 'It's too late.' We were surprised. But that's OK. It's like a remix album out there for the fans. It just came out first." So the artist had cold feet? Did they just forget they made it?
What did finally come out here in March was the same album, only with a bunch of live musicians playing along. In 2001 Pharrell became enamored of Minneapolis funk hacks Spymob, recently dropped by Epic. The Neptunes signed them to their new Arista-distributed label, Star Trak, and made them the "real band" inside the N*E*R*D concept. The songs retained their structure, with most of the keyboard sequences untouched, but drums, bass, and guitar were added. Many vocals were rerecorded, though most were sung exactly the same way and no words were changed.
The lead track and 2001 single "Lapdance" gains a bit of crunch, rolling like a Trojan horse into the house of nu-metal. But the rest of the album merely sounds like an attempt to reassure Virgin that the Neptunes can be better than Limp Bizkit. (They can be better than Limp Bizkit.) The first time around "Things Are Getting Better" was a marriage of opposites: Pharrell's shower-stall falsetto and the airplane-sized synth blats. The whispered refrain "'Cause I'm the shit" played beautifully against the fact that nobody in N*E*R*D was acting much like the shit. Remember how it felt to walk through the mall in a new Members Only jacket with an Orange Julius in your hand, fresh off a successful wrassle with Defender? That's what "Things" sounded like--hot for some, retarded for others, and all the sweeter for the disjunction. But with Spymob huffing and puffing under the synth candy, the track just sounds like it belongs in pop music right now, and how much fun is that? Not much.
When it was born for the first time, N*E*R*D's debut really was the revenge of the nerds, obvious headlines be damned. Their sex talk was pure fantasy and the skits were funny, like you'd expect from kids who had moved on to Steven Wright from Howard Stern. Now N*E*R*D are players in the big game, just like their alter egos. Stronger, but weaker for it somehow.