The Phlegmatics, Billy the Star Fighter Pilot vs. The Phlegmatics

The Phlegmatics, Billy the Star Fighter Pilot vs. The Phlegmatics

By all rights, this shouldn’t work. It really, seriously should not work — how could you expect it to, after all? Songs of awkward, nebbishy, teenage nerddom with titles like “My Mom Thinks I’m Cool” or “Unibrow,” played by a crew of guys who’re closer to my own age than they are to high school; these guys are far more Revenge of the Nerds than, say, The O.C.. I mean, with songs like, say, “Yellow Fantasy,” a song about an unrequited crush on Ms. Pac-Man, or “Unibrow,” where frontman/guitarist Jonathan Marshall uses his unibrow as a big long extended metaphor for he and his(?) special somebody getting serious, how the hell could this not fall flat?

And yet, it doesn’t. In fact, it works ridiculously well, against all odds. The aforementioned “Unibrow,” for example, admittedly teeters on the edge between clever-cool and what-the-fuck, but it never actually falls on the latter side. Plus, I have to admire any band that can grab hold of a truly, truly horrible lyrical conceit and not only see it all the way to the end but manage to play awesomely catchy music as it goes. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the entire Phlegmatics modus operandi in a nutshell.

Okay, so they don’t always go for the awful metaphors, truthfully. I was initially a bit disappointed by Billy the Starfighter Pilot, feeling like it didn’t quite pack the punch of the band’s previous full-length, Alumnus — the guitars here are still Marshall-stack loud, sure, but they don’t step to the front like they did on songs like “My Friend Chi.” The disappointment faded, however, when I realized just how far the Phlegmatics have progressed in terms of actual songwriting.

They’re at their best when they come up with songs that are like these cool, ridiculously detailed little sketches, just glimpses of fully-formed characters put to music. For one, there’s “Punk Rock Club,” a depiction of a seemingly mild-mannered NPR radio host who transforms by night into a pit-stomping punk rocker, rocking out to The Clash and Claude Debussy at the same time — I can’t tell whether they’re poking fun or celebrating the guy’s fearless diversity, and really, that may be part of the point. Either way, by the end of the song, I find myself nodding and smiling and growling along with the faux-gruff, tough-guy chorus, thinking, “hey, that sure sounds like that guy I met one time…”

Further on in, “Davey” hits in the same vein, albeit kind of in a “twofer” sort of way. It’s an oddly intriguing internal monologue of sorts, “between” the finder of a lost wallet and the guy to whom it belongs, who inadvertently becomes the subject of a fumbling, endearingly creepy attempt at stalking the eponymous wallet owner. It’s sweet and friendly, but a little freaky at the same time, particularly when the band gets to the backup vocals in the verse: “Davey, Davey / I know about you, Davey.” And as it unfolds, you get a feel for both of the characters.

The same goes, in a sense, for the possibly-autobiographical (okay, scratch that; make it “the dear God, I hope it’s not autobiographical,” instead) “My Mom Thinks I’m Cool.” It’s the best song on here, hands down, taking everything that was great about early Weezer and boiling it down to its essence, all rumbling bass, thick, chunky, roaring guitars, melodic gang vocals, and an inherently geek-ish sensibility. The Phlegmatics whole style is somewhat of a throwback, all the way down to the lyrics, and that shows nowhere better than here.

Frontman Jonathan Marshall painstakingly lays out the depressing, kind of pathetic details of his(?) nerdy existence, living in the basement of his parents house and unable to get girls because he wears nothing but Star Wars t-shirts: “In the class of 1993 / voted ‘Most Likely to Keep My Virginity’…” I definitely find myself worrying about Marshall, but at the same time, I’m grinning and shaking my head ruefully at how close the song hits to my own teenage reality.

Through it all, the Phlegmatics (Marshall, drummer brother Ethan, guitarist dad Dave, and bassist Jonas Velasco) blaze through track after track of addictively catchy, shout-along pop-punk-ish rock, melting in The Stereo, Weezer (again), Overwhelming Colorfast, Hüsker Dü, and even Tenacious D to make one big-ass Sword of Nerd-Rock Glory.

Amidst all the nerd-love, there’re a couple of surprisingly straightforward tracks on here, like “Where Do We Go Now?,” which is relatively basic, love-gone-wrong pop-rock that feels weirdly like classic rock at points; I wasn’t a fan, at first, but it’s been slowly growing on me. There’s also “I Need Her More Than She Needs Me,” which has a cool little bit in the middle that makes me think of Devo’s “Girl U Want,” and “Boys and Girls,” which almost sounds like it could’ve come out of the late-’70s pop-punk scene in England, with the “echoed” background vocals and straight-ahead rhythms.

Not everything works, mind you. The title track gets bogged down in a bit of a clichéd storyline, while “Christmas Carol” and “My Space” try to be too clever and don’t quite make it (and yes, the latter track is about what you think it’s about). But honestly, they’re a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the album, and I find myself minding less and less that I have to skip past when I listen to the disc. As long as the band can keep crank out those quirky, weird-yet-familiar tracks about video games and not fitting in, hell, I can easily forgive ’em a couple of missteps.

[The Phlegmatics are playing 3/27/10 at The Continental Club, along with The Stinkertons.]
(self-released; The Phlegmatics --

Review by . Review posted Saturday, March 27th, 2010. Filed under Reviews.

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One Response to “The Phlegmatics, Billy the Star Fighter Pilot vs. The Phlegmatics

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 1: The Phlegmatics + Kirke Campbell + Places to Hide + Murder City Devils + American Sharks + More on January 3rd, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    […] be better-known, because their three albums so far — 2004′s Alumnus, 2009′s Billy the Star Fighter Pilot vs. The Phlegmatics, and this past year’s Life is Better with a Soundtrack — play out like a trifecta of […]

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