Tag Archives: Lemon Demon

2016, in review

Alas, 2016 has now drawn to a close, an event which ought to make everyone say “finally, thank God”.  Though make no mistake, 2017 could very well be worse; as much damage as Trump has done to our country this year, just imagine what could happen when the man actually holds executive power.  From a music perspective, who knows – hard to imagine we’ll lose as many legends as we did this year, though to be frank here all the stars of the 60’s and 70’s are really getting up there aren’t they?  Granted, some of these deaths were particularly tragic – Bowie kicking off a week after releasing his best album in decades; Prince passing despite remaining as youthful and busy as ever; Keith Emerson dying by his own hand.  Christ, who’s next?  (12/8/2016: turns out I didn’t have to wait long – it’s Greg Lake.)

So it’s bittersweet in a sense, but 2016 was really a great year for new music (so long as what.cd wasn’t your primary source), though I say that with my usual disclaimer that I’m not even close to caught up on the year yet.  My year end list is going to look a lot different than everyone else’s, mostly because I’ve heard like three of the albums that are mainstays on the yearly Top 50s.  So I’m just going to split this up into the stuff I really liked, and then everything else I feel like writing about.  And we’ll just call it at that.  Rather than prattle on about the respective qualities of all these albums (many of which I’ve already written about on this site…follow the links on the titles if you want to read those), I’ll tackle them from the perspective of time, since a lot of these are from people that have been around the block a few times.  I mean, a lot of these acts I’ve been a fan of for over a decade; I turned 30 this year, my son turned 2, I have a daughter on the way…time is marching on.  So let’s start:

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Lemon Demon – Spirit Phone (2016)

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Neil Cicierega turned 30 last week.  That feels significant to me; 30 is still pretty young in the real world, but in the online world that Neil grew up in, anyone in their thirties was a certified old fogey.  Hard to imagine that the perpetually teenage-looking Neil Cicierega has been making music under the Lemon Demon banner for half his life now, and even longer if you count the mostly instrumental electronic stuff he did as Trapezoid.  And though it must suck to be locked into a band name you came up with when you were 15 (nothing against it, but I don’t think he imagined he’d still be using it a decade and a half later), it does mean that Lemon Demon has made a name for itself, which is great.  I mean, no offense to Neil, but in 2003, I couldn’t figure out why exactly he wanted to become a musician; he wasn’t very good instrumentally, couldn’t really sing, and besides he was already Mr. Animutation.  But by his third album Hip to the Javabean I started to get it, and he improved on every subsequent release.  He stopped being known as Mr. Animutation shortly after that, and in 2006 scored what could reasonably be called a hit – “Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny”.  I’m guessing you’ve heard it.
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Lemon Demon – Nature Tapes (2014)

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Lemon Demon is the one-man band of the online semi-celebrity Neil (“The Real Deal”) Cicierega. I’ve always felt some kind of an affinity towards the guy; we’re almost exactly the same age (I believe he’s slightly younger) and we have about the same sense of humor. We were both fascinated by an utterly bizarre “Pocket Monsters” disc (I’m sure there were a million of the things made, but I don’t know how many non-Japanese speakers would want to hear it). His incomprehensible “Animutation” videos (on Newgrounds!) were one of the first internet things I really loved, mostly because I knew that none of my friends were going to get it.

It’s funny in retrospect; I recall a bunch of articles painting the guy as some sort of deranged kid genius who made this entertaining but real flash-in-the-pan art project. I assumed he’d go to college and do film editing work or whatever. But Neil became a true singularity; he’s gone viral multiple times over, through his “Potter Pupper Pals” videos (one of which was, I believe, one of the top ten most viewed videos on YouTube), his “Ultimate Showdown” song, his brilliant Windows 95 Tumblr account, and who knows what else. I remember one time playing poker at a buddy’s house while some show featuring internet videos was on; it was mostly lame but I remember becoming obsessed with this idiosyncratic thing called “BRODYQUEST”. Turns out that was Neil too. Of course it was.

Anyway, this is a music blog, so let’s get to it. Believe it or not, Neil’s ALSO been making music for 14 years, first as Trapezoid, then in 2003 a copyright claim forced him to change his name to Lemon Demon. His Trapezoid work was mostly instrumental chiptune stuff, though he did one neat surf-rock tune named “I Know Your Name” on which he actually sings. Maybe that was the moment where he figured he could write songs as well. Since then, we’ve gotten 6 Lemon Demon albums from 2003 to 2008, after which he briefly stopped to focus on the dozens of other things he’s got going on. I’ll be honest here; Lemon Demon is one of those things that’s best in small doses. Every single one of those albums has a few brilliant tracks, but as a whole there’s a lot of dicking around, a lot of ideas that don’t quite work, a little too much cribbing from They Might Be Giants, and not enough of the far-left-of-center musing that marks the guy at his best.

(2016 edit: I’ve been relistening to those albums and feel like I should walk this back a little bit – I think what I wrote still stands, but I still enjoy those albums quite a bit anyway)

Nature Tapes is a collection of seven songs that Neil’s done between 2010 and 2013, all of which demonstrate just how good the guy can be when he’s not thinking in terms of an actual album. For one, “BRODYQUEST” is here in all its MIDI-tinged glory, playing like all the snakiest musical bits of PC gaming circa 1994; it’s the kind of thing that buries itself underneath your skin and ruins your day (according to iTunes, it’s one of my 100 favorite songs, right next to Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator”, which seems about right). It’s the sort of thing that the Neil of 2001 would’ve been awestruck by.

The other tracks aren’t like that – he does sing on the other six, and it seems like time away from producing long players has done the man some good. Vocals were never exactly Neil’s strong suit; they tended to work fine when backed by a strong melody (as on, say, “This Hyper World” or “New Way Out”), but when the songwriting isn’t there, he doesn’t exactly have the presence to make up for it. He sometimes does this thing that mediocre singers do where they undersing and undermix their voice to make up for a lack of confidence. These songs however amp up the wacky factor and the results are surprisingly strong. For once he seems to be comfortable in his own voice, allowing him to totally sell the sort of bouncy synth-funk that makes up “Two Trucks” or the offbeat swagger in “Really Cool Wig” (the part where he flails out a “fuck yes!” is a genuine laugh-out-loud moment, especially since Cicierega doesn’t swear a whole lot. There are a lot of “fucks” on Nature Tapes.) Sometimes the inherant dorkiness in his voice works in his favor; the needlessly aggressive “My Trains” has a lot of unnecessary attitude for a song about model trains, but it would only be a quarter as funny if his voice matched the tone of the song. Hell, he’s even found a way to sound downright manic on “Everybody Loves Raymond”. These songs are awfully confrontational; like most of Neil’s best stuff it sets aside any subtlety and forces the listener to just, y’know, deal with it.

If anything it seems like the big change is that he’s tossed aside his TMBG influences and instead embraced the shameless, overly giddy attitude of Sparks. I mean every song here has that “turn it off before this gets stuck in my head for the next month” quality. I have a disdain for the whole genre of “take some pop culture thing and rap about it in a mildly funny manner” thing that dudes like Luke Ski or MC Chris do, but holy fuck is “Jaws” some kind of earworm – like everything good about “Ultimate Showdown” dialed up several hundred notches. I guess spending half your time figuring out ways to shoehorn bits of Smash Mouth’s “All Star” into all your remixes finally rubbed off on the guy.

Really, if I were to sum up Neil’s entire aesthetic, I’d say it’s all about finding those little moments of brilliance, the bits that jam themselves into your brain and command your attention whenever you’re not focusing on something else. Bits like a goofball Nintendo-funk song randomly dropping a chorus of “Who you gonna vote for? Barack Obama” despite nothing else in the song being political in the slightest (“123456 Pokémon” – not on here). Bits like Adrian Brody exploding out of the sun with shades and a star guitar. Or a “malfunctioning Google autocorrect” graphic that refers to “Justin Bienber’s pig collection”. If he used his powers for evil, he could write obnoxious commercial jingles the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the old Mentos ads.

Now that he’s in his late 20’s, I think the guy has enough concept of what works and what doesn’t. I don’t see him making the leap into some sort of progged-out recluse but I get the feeling that he’s slowly turning into Max Tundra; most of these songs are played for laughs, but who puts this much work into a joke song? Oh, but it pays off – moments of flair like the bright synthblasts on “Jaws”, the breakdown on “My Trains”, or the bits of random MIDI noises on “BRODYQUEST” are really what make all the difference here. With a full-length coming down the pike this year, it looks like we’ll see if this is the new Neil or if songs like these are just one-offs. Either way, 4 bucks for 25 minutes of this stuff is a steal, you can thank or blame me later.

Choice song: “Two Trucks”

Choice lyric: “In the club/the model railroad club/motherfuckers said shit about my trains/might as well’ve took a shit on my brain, cause I went insane/I laid track on his ass with a styofoam bat/but the president never did let me back after that shit/I said ‘fuck you’, who the fuck needs a punk-ass choo-choo crew anyhoo?”