A co-worker of mine recently introduced me to two musicians: Kirin J Callinan and Donny Benet. When I first listened to Callinan I thought I was hearing a bad David Bowie impression, but of obscure cover songs. Callinan’s newest album is, indeed, an album of cover songs. And Donny Benet simply sounded like a creep who was trying to scam on the wait staff of the cruise ship he was booked on.
Both of these artists offer some type of ironic encounter with music. Benet, for instance, has a song called "Sex Tourist" where he revels in the glory of, you guessed it, sex tourism. It’s all crass and grimy, like that dirty uncle you have. But the production is solid, and the lounge act he’s aping is pulled off very well. Benet is conscious of the fact that he’s producing this kitsch. It’s intentional.
Callinan is a bit more complex in his ironic approach. The lyrical content is dark, or twisted, as with “Living Each Day” where he repeats the mantra resist the urge to systematically kill in a lulling croon. And the cover songs on his newest album seem to all have some sort of sexual throb to them, in a sort of guy-at-the-bar-who-won’t-go-away-and-keeps-staring-through-the-wall-behind-you kind of way. It’s a more subtle, unsettling sort of irony, bordering on psychosis. But, again, great production. Everything is conceived and performed with great intention, focus, and precision.
Donny Benet, like Richard Cheese, is easy to dismiss as a slimeball. Maybe it’s a persona, maybe it’s not. Either way there’s always a point in at least one song when, if you’re listening around others, you feel the need to skip or apologize for what’s about to happen (See, specifically, Richard Cheese’s version of Nirvana’s “Rape Me”.).
Callinan’s work gains meaning when you read about the ideas behind the music - about how “Return to Center” was recorded, for instance, with equipment rented from Guitar Center, used, and then brought back within the return period. There are interesting notions going on in and around the music - but it only makes sense if you’re in on the joke. If you don’t get the joke, or don’t even know there’s a joke going on, it all just sounds overwrought.
So, here we come, then, to the question of this long intro: How are these guys any different from other “novelty” acts? Like, say, Weird Al or Lonely Island? Are these two, Callinan and Benet, funny, ironic, or just bad? And what constitutes those categories?