Irony gets a bad rap these days. In an age when soul-baring honesty is seen as the pinnacle of artistic achievement, coating one’s art in a “protective” shell of irony and snark seems defensive at best, and disingenuous at worst. But that obsession with frankness denies the notion that irony can be enjoyed for irony’s sake, and suggests that an audience may not be bright enough to chip through the layers of sarcasm to find the sincerity hidden inside. Over the course of two full-length albums and a handful of EPs, Milwaukee’s Sat. Nite Duets have buried their tales of bygone summers and lovers lost under piles of empty PBR cans and dude-friendly jokes. That’s once again the case with the group’s terrific new album, Electric Manland, though an expanded musical palette and a renewed devotion to all things pop (and junk) culture ensure that it’s much more than a rehash of its predecessors.
Calling Manland Sat. Nite Duets’ “classic rock” album may be pushing it (there is a song that ponders whether or not God is actually a giant worm, after all), but the record’s numerous nods to gold-encrusted oldies are impossible to ignore. From the Jimi Hendrix-spoofing title to the Sgt. Pepper-lampooning cover art down (dig the pictures of Don Knotts, Tony Clifton, Elaine Benes, and the Abominable Snow Monster), Manland is an album steeped in references, albeit slightly tweaked ones. Alternately blistering and bittersweet single “Stone Free” may borrow its name from Hendrix, but its hazy images of ex-girlfriends and wasted afternoons spent getting high are pure Sat. Nite Duets. The same is true for the impeccably produced “The Last Summer,” a herky-jerky jaunt stuffed with wanky guitar stabs and Talking Heads-esque breakdowns that still manages to touch on the band’s pet theme of fleeting summer fun. (“In the long run / It’s already long gone.”)
Elsewhere, the sprawling “My Novel” begins as a navel-gazing dirge before slowly building into an anthemic shout into the abyss (“Sometimes I don’t really think that anybody really knows what I’m talking about”) complete with washes of noise and Pepper-indebted strings. “I Have The Wine, ” meanwhile, takes its name from a snippet of preceding audio in which a Wheel Of Fortune contestant hilariously botches a Johnny Cash-related puzzle. The latter is just one of many tracks that suggest what would happen if a band spent three solid months of watching nothing but daytime television, only to somehow produce an cohesive album in the end. (About the only thing missing from Manland is a song called “You ARE The Father!”)
But nowhere is the album’s—and the band’s—subversive duality better expressed than on standout track “Born To Walk.” The title is a thematic downshift of Springsteen’s “Born To Run,” but the song itself is hardly a lark. Featuring an impossibly catchy chorus that cries out for shout-along status (“Walk on baby to the other side / Won’t you call me crazy / Call me whatever you’d like”), “Born To Walk” finds Sat. Nite Duets at their most frenzied and inspired. Even tracks that would normally be considered tossed-off filler—the goofy “Big Worm,” the even goofier “Women’s Prison”—manage to make an impression due to the band’s dedication to sticking to the joke. The fact that those jokes can be taken at face value and still contain loftier concerns is paramount to both Electric Manland and Sat. Nite Duets’ success. Enjoy the candy coating, savor the gooey center.