Today I’d like to do my first music review on this blog. And it’s something rather special.

I’ll be reviewing “Mouth Sounds” by Neil Cicierega. It’s a 56 minute mashup of popular culture, with All Star by Smashmouth as a recurrent motif throughout. Sounds good, right?

Give it a listen here:

The first thing to say is that I’m already a huge fan of this format. I think that The Avalanches’ Gimix is one of the greatest musical works of all time. If you haven’t heard it before, give it a listen. It’s 45 minutes of pure aural bliss.

I’m also a huge fan of Walt Disnizzle by ARKHAM.p77, a more focussed mashup piece, which blends disney songs with rap. As with Gimix, it’s all samples but the composition makes it work wonderfully.

I’ve even had a go at the genre myself, with my own 27 1/2 minute mix receiving absolutely no critical acclaim whatsoever. But enough about that.

Mouth Sounds, then, is my latest infatuation. There’s also a sister mix Mouth Silence that you can check out, but here we’re just talking about the original, created by Neil Cicierega.

But who is this Neil Cicierega anyway? Well, chances are you’ve already heard of him, but didn’t know it. Ever heard of Potter Puppet Pals? Yup, Cicierega.

He’s also the creator of The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny, one of my favourite youtube videos. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a flash animation about an all-out battle royale between various characters in pop culture. Godzilla fighting Shaquille O’Neal, that kind of thing.

Aside from being a catchy song, and extremely catchy, I loved TUSOUD for the way it called out pop culture figures. It’s like a game where you have to try and see how many references you can get (‘Spock, The Rock, Doc Oc, and Hulk Hogan’ is a fantastic line). It’s a masterful blend of these references as well as being a celebration of their fandoms. I don’t feel guilty for being able to recognise all these characters, despite them all being pretty nerdy. Instead it’s turned into something actually cool through the medium of song.

I think that last point might not be the clearest one I’ve ever made, but luckily I’ve got two great illustrations. And yes, they’re also mashups.

First up, Pop Culture by Madeon.

And secondly, the Golden Age of Video by Ricardo Autobahn.

What do these all have in common? Well, they throw together dozens of short clips from various sources in an exciting and entertaining way. Just like a cover of a song can breathe new life into it, these mashups re-present elements we’re super familiar with as part of a new, larger arrangement. “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!” as the refrain of TGAOV works perfectly, but in the most unexpected way – for instance.

And placed into the wider context, the samples become a celebration of the genres they’re taken from. Pop Culture is great for this. The clips are all from pop songs, which tend to get a pretty bad rap. And sure, I don’t like a lot of the original source songs. But arranged together in the way they are, they become part of the best pop song ever. Likewise with TGAOV, we assume an overall perspective over the whole of video/film, and can see what is is we love about it: crazy characters, badass moments, excitement and fun.

Going back to Ultimate Showdown for a second. That was a celebration of a more specific culture: cult followings. Things like Monty Python and Big Trouble in Little China have dedicated cult followings and this video is a great showcase of them, but also for the concept of ‘cult’ in general. We watch it and feel great about Godzilla and Jackie Chan, we’re so lucky to have them! Screw the haters, this is a love letter to anyone who’s ever loved something out of the mainstream. Nerd culture can be beautiful too.

It should be pretty obvious then how this ties back into Mouth Sounds. You see, Mouth Sounds is another example of a cultural mashup. Here are a few of the things it samples:

  • Smashmouth – All Star
  • Modest Mouse – Float On
  • Homer Simpson
  • Austin Powers
  • Dave Matthews Band – Ants Marching
  • Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime
  • Sir Mix-A-Lot  – Baby Got Back
  • Will Smith – Men in Black

And that’s just the first ten minutes.

At first glance, it might look like the focus here is less targeted than the above mashups. And sure, the range is wider but I’d argue that it’s because the target here isn’t meant to be a specific band of popular culture – but instead popular culture itself.

That’s why we get clips from music, film, television (one song ends with just the outros of various TV networks) and the internet (of course Chocolate Rain makes an appearance). The source of the samples matters just as much as the samples themselves. And the achieved effect is a greater appreciation of how all these things entertain us in their own ways.

I should also point out that it’s funny as hell. The mashup is playful and teasing in parts, such as playing the theme from Full House followed by an Alanis Morisette song, before segueing right back into Full House again – which, as flamboyant saxaphone fills go, is hilariously jarring in its own right. And the lack of an obvious theme makes this even more effective – you never know where the next sample is going to come from so it hits you even harder when it does.

All Star sung to the tune of Imagine by John Lennon? You couldn’t predict that, and it’s just the best thing ever. I feel bad even telling you that actually, like spoiling the ending of a good book, the surprise is so effective throughout.

Why the focus on All Star though? Well, I’ve written about Shrek in popular culture before, and I’ve  argued that Shrek has become a fundamental part of our cultural zeitgeist. I’ve even gone so far as to argue that All Star was the song of the decade it came out in. It seems that there’s an echo of this in Mouth Sounds. Most the samples do come from the 90s/early 00s (though not all) so it’d make sense for the song to be as prominent as it is, should my theory concerning Mouth Sounds as a cultural retrospective be valid.

All Star is just a great song too, as well. It seems to go with everything.

Mouth Sounds also has the element I enjoyed from TUSOUD of playing the game of trying to spot all the references. It rewards frequent replays and a keen attention to the detail of the songs. I spent ages trying to track down the original source of the Full House theme used (it’s like an instrumental version of one of the outros, from what I can tell), and had a great time doing so.

So in conclusion, Mouth Sounds is a fantastic achievement. The pure technical skill in location, arranging and mixing the samples alone is at least as impressive as anything done by The Avalanches, etc. Added onto that you’ve got the skill of making something that makes me laugh every single time I listen to it.

It’s also an important work of art in terms of making a statement. The statement it makes, as far as I can tell, is that our popular culture (specifically, western media in the late nineties and early noughties) may be crass, kitch and just plain dumb, but that’s great. It’s put us where we are today and we shouldn’t shy away from our cultural heritage.

Not when it can sound this good.