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Duck Sauce Make Better Sketches than Jams on Lackluster ‘Quack’

SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: April 15, 2014
Label: Fools Gold

Duck Sauce ain’t rocket science. From the beginning, the genius of A-Trak and Armand Van Helden’s collaborative M.O. has been its simplicity: Take the chorus from a forgotten disco song, sprinkle on some electronic pixie dust, add a nonsensical (but SEO-friendly) hook — like the spoken phrase “Barbra Streisand,” from their hit of the same name — and loop it all ad delirium. Top it off with the plausible deniability that accompanies such low-stakes hijinks (“It’s about making a career out of brain farts,” as A-Trak put it to Pitchfork) and you’ve got what amounts to a critically unassailable proposal. To slate Duck Sauce is to hate fun.

That seems to be the defense for their debut album, Quack, which offers a dozen takes on their loony-loops formula, copiously interspersed with tongue-in-cheek skits designed to remind us that gravitas is not the issue, dude. (“It’s sort of acid house meets Elmer Fudd,” offers one sketch, a sendup of music-industry elevator-pitch pigeonholing. “I think it’s sort of Mel Gibson meets ancient aliens… I’d say it’s more the traveling circus meets Rodney Dangerfield.”)

If you haven’t yet tired of their demonically cheerful breakout hit “Barbra Streisand,” from 2010, you’re in luck: It’s here all over again (and as earwormy as ever), along with the previous year’s “aNYway,” which still sounds fantastic, even if is just a particularly canny edit of “I Can Do It (Anyway You Want),” a 1979 single by the disco act Final Edition. They also trot out last year’s “It’s You,” a kazoo-led, hillbilly-house reworking of a 1950s doo-wop song by Alan Sanchez and Bruce Patch; its biggest fans are likely to be music supervisors, possibly sadistic ones, looking to lend a touch of the “zany” to their reality-show montage and/or cellular-phone advertisement. (“Introducing Verizon Family Plan… It’s you!” Cue hoedown.)

Occasionally, they nail it. “Radio Stereo” turns the Madness-meets-funk-punk sound of the Members’ 1982 song “Radio” into an invigorating Basement-Jaxx-gone-pub-rock anthem that would sound great in Trainspotting 2. And they do a passable electric boogaloo with “Charlie Chazz & Rappin Ralph,” with Sugarhill-inspired rapping over a juicy disco loop. But all that enforced fun quickly runs thin. “NRG,” sampling Melissa Manchester’s 1985 single “Energy,” sounds like bargain-basement Daft Punk; “Ring Me” reduces the German trio A La Carte’s “Ring Me Honey” (1980) to a caricature of string vamps and diva oomph. I’d never heard of Time Bandits or their 1981 single “Live It Up,” but it’s infinitely more engaging than Duck Sauce’s “Spandex,” which merely retrofits the chorus for contemporary EDM’s roller-coaster dynamics.

At least you can’t accuse them of being boring; they’re generally in and out in 3 minutes or less. Which leaves plenty of time — 10 full minutes of the album’s 54:24 running time, in fact — for an array of skits, sketches, and interstitial bits. They range from radiophonic tomfoolery — screams, thunderclaps, cuckoo clocks, Woody Woodpecker cackles, gargling, police-scanner flotsam, orgasmic moans, Forbidden Planet bloops, sci-fi monologues, and other sounds cribbed from the Prince Paul playbook — to elaborate nonsense speeches, and from hammy impersonations of New York “ethnic” radio to ribald riffs on the love between man and duck. (Specifically, one duck, Patricia, “with the great teeth and no tongue.”) A prank call to a Chinese restaurant tips its hat to the Beasties’ “Cookie Puss”; another sketch flips Method Man and Raekwon’s escalating torture fantasies from 36 Chambers into a Pineapple Express-grade bromance. (“Yeah, I’ll fuckin’ take you to the farmers market and get you the freshest veggies and shit, like they serve at Whole Foods.” “I’ll fuckin’, yo, I’ll fuckin’, I’ll take you antiquing and buy you the nicest doll house. Hand painted.”) That one’s pretty funny. In fact, on balance, the sketches — and did I mention that 18 percent of the album’s running time is devoted to sketches? — are actually more satisfying than the songs. It’s here that Quack shows its true colors. Like Seinfeld, as New York a document as Paul’s Boutique, Quack presents itself as a comedy about nothing. But Seinfeld‘s nihilism, as a portrait of the neuroses of a certain class in a certain era, at least represented a kind of ethos (pace Walter Sobchak). Duck Sauce’s “brain farts,” on the other hand, take refuge in the idea that if you stand for nothing, you can’t be held accountable for anything.