Borken Telephone: Album Review

Full Disclosure & Spoiler Warning: So, Peter Chiykowski, the guy behind this album, is a good friend of mine, but that doesn’t influence my opinion of the album. Also, the review does contain ‘spoilers’, which I ordinarily wouldn’t think was a big deal for an album, but since so many of the jokes are so rapid-fire and clever, I feel like maybe you should go listen to the album first, so that they land the way they should. Short review, it’s great, it’s funny, you should listen to it, you can order it or stream the whole thing here. Spoiler warning ends here.

If there’s one thing you can say for Peter Chiykowski, it’s that he has a knack for two things: knockout concepts, and getting lots of people on board with them. So it goes with his newest project, a 13-track album called Borken Telephone, which assembles a veritable We Are The World-class lineup of geek musicians (Kirby Krackle, Adam WarRock, The Doubleclicks, and MC Frontalot, to name a few) around a simple concept: a 1-minute song of which each collaborator must play a version after having only heard the previous version only once- a musical game of broken telephone. Inbetween are a collection of solid tunes that keep the energy going right up until the end. Borken Telephone is outwardly sweet and funny, and it has enough going on under the hood to make you want to swing back and see what you missed.

Listening to the album start-to-finish, it’s easy to see why getting people on board for things seems like a snap for Chiykowski- his ideas are almost relentlessly fun. First and foremost, he’s a clever lyricist, delivering puns and wordplay with the kind of surgical precision that puts dads the world over to shame, seamlessly woven into foot-tapping melodies that lodge in your brain like ancient arcane knowledge that will slowly destroy you from within. That alone would be great, but his voice has just the right amount of weariness to give every song a forlorn sort of warmth that makes the delivery charming and earnest. It gives an easy likeability to the whole affair, and builds a character that Chiykowski maintains through every song- a little awkward, a little befuddled, always funny, always rockin’ it.

The standout track is probably “Hello N.S.A”, if only because it plays hard into Chiykowski’s strengths as a musician- a power-pop love anthem directed at the N.S.A, composed predominantly of blacklisted watchwords. It displays his lyrical talent (‘I’ve got a weapon of mass seduction/And the detonator’s set/You don’t have to waterboard me/Because I’m already wet’), his talent for killer ideas on which to hang a song, and his willingness to throw himself behind whatever insane thing he thinks up. A love song made of N.S.A watchwords is such a crazy idea that it’s a little shocking to actually hear it be so good- the joke is as much in the lyrics as it is in the fact that the silly thing even exists. It’s Chiykowski at the top of his game. “Enigma Machine” is another great tune in this vein, using the metaphor of cryptography, codebreaking, and WWII imagery to illustrate two people who can’t communicate their feelings- a sad, funny, catchy tune that captures a universal desperation (“Still we’re at this standstill/These remorseless dots and dashes/Muzzle flashes, trenches filled with Brits and Krauts/All I wanted was for you to hear me out”).

In fact, communication- or rather, the failure thereof- seems to be the apparent theme of the album. The concept that brackets the album is a short song about a game of Broken Telephone gradually garbling the words until they’re a ritual chant that summons a Cthonic deity, and that idea links the album- an inability to understand, to speak, to connect. “Hello N.S.A” begins its chorus with the line “I just want you to notice me, but I don’t know the words to say.” “Zeroes and Ones” a sweet song about a robot that falls in love with its creator, features the line “I’d hold your hand, if you’d give me one/I’d say your name, if you’d give me lungs.” ‘Single Wooly Mammoth Seeking Mate’ is about a mammoth- perhaps the last mammoth- in search of love, who eventually finds comfort with another mammoth- who’s, tragically, frozen in ice. This theme fuels some of the album’s finest gags. The whimsical ballad ‘Geeks in Love’ features a recurring joke wherein a girl has given someone her number- written, as a comically confused Chiykowski notes, in binary. Or take ‘I Don’t Need You (I’ve Got Netflix)’- the song is an ode to an ex, and an insistence that the singer no longer feels lonely because they have Netflix, who delivers everything they want with a single click. Then comes the punchline- an extended breakdown wherein Chiykowski lists all the boring things that Netflix recommends to him. Not even the algorithms tailor-made to satisfy can really get us, it seems. Over and over again, Chiykowski’s songs play on an inability to connect, a difficulty in being understood.

It’s such a perfect theme for a geek-rock album; it captures something quintessential of the geek (and, for that matter, human) experience. We’re awkward people, us geeks, and communication can come hard to all of us. Enigma Machine’s chorus puts it concisely: “We never say what we mean/Every conversation’s an Enigma Machine.” We know that feeling, when we say something that’s not exactly what we meant- a word off, a phrase we didn’t think hard enough about, a game of broken telephone between your brain and your mouth- and it feels like suddenly we’re cut adrift, and our failure to communicate has summoned something dark and horrible with which we don’t know how to deal. Chiykowski’s songs put a word to that feeling. And they give us a little hope, too. The boy deciphers the girl’s phone number. The mammoth knows all he has to do is wait, and eventually scientists will clone him and his mate. And perhaps the best encapsulation of all this is the grand, silly, nonsensical point of the whole thing- an 18-minute track that begins and ends with Chiykowski, and contains all the album’s collaborators doing their brief, glorious takes on the previous collaborator’s version of the 1-mintue song. The song starts with the original tune- a short bit about the words of a game of broken telephone waking Cthulhu from his slumber- “Wake the kraken from his slumber/Put Cthulhu on his throne/Didn’t mean to bring the end times/They just got here on their own.” It evokes the dark side of the album’s themes- sometimes our failure to communicate gets us in big trouble. Sometimes when we aren’t heard- or don’t hear- things go wrong in a hurry. But over the course of the goofy, impossibly charming 18 minutes, the lyrics change and warp until finally, they’ve become something that hits a more hopeful note (I love that, by sheer chance, the first three words of the last tune are “Are you listening?”). At first, it seems almost resigned- “Our big old mouths will always telegraph/Spit dots and dashes/Our big old hearts hear what they will.” But I think there’s a little relief in that, too. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you say. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that you feel like a robot shouting zeroes and ones, that it would take an army of Turings to decode what you’re trying to get across. Sometimes people understand anyway.

There are a couple of songs that don’t quite stick their landings. “The Philosophical Zombie Slayer” is a perfect display of Chiykowski’s whip-quick pun skills, but the swing-styled tune comes across a little flat; and ‘This Will Never End’ is a bittersweet ode to nostalgia past its due date but it lacks the narrative cohesion that really drives the other tracks. The album’s quality never drops below “Pleasant but not quite as good as the rest,” though, and when that’s the worst you can say, you’re still looking at a very solid piece of work. The collaborators are all in fine form, too, and it’s a joy to hear them lend their unique stylings to Chiykowski’s already-great song ideas. There’s just not that much more to say except that it works. It works better than it should, for how bonkers an idea it is. Ultimately, Borken Telephone is a breezy, charismatic collection of head-bopping songs that are as clever as they are catchy, and it’s more than worth a listen. If this is the caliber of work we can expect from Chiykowski, musically, then I’m keeping my ear to the ground. Are you listening? Because you should be.

Borken Telephone is available for order and streaming at borkentelephone.com. If you like it, check out Peter’s webcomic, Rock, Paper, Cynic.

Rock,
Bruce