In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about great songs by non-musicians.
Despite being made up entirely of professional humor writers, Don’t Stop Or We’ll Die was never exactly a comedy band. Sure, the trio (Paul Rust, Mike Cassady, and the late Harris Wittels) had their share of joke songs—“I Got A Perm For Our Camping Trip” and “She’s Got Titties (In All The Right Places)” both build up to obvious punchlines, for instance—but the group was just as devoted to the musicality of its surprisingly powerful piano pop melodies as it was to the absurd situations that populate the lyrics.
Case in point: the title track from the band’s 2010 EP, The Ballad Of Bear And Fox. The song’s premise—an overwrought argument between the titular animals about the proper way to raise their “little baby bird-fox”—is silly enough, and Rust and Cassady’s vocals occasionally go intentionally off-key for comic effect. But to dismiss “The Ballad Of Bird And Fox” as a mere “comedy song” is to miss what made Don’t Stop such a welcome presence on podcasts like Comedy Bang! Bang! Underneath the surface humor, Cassady’s piano, Rust’s bass, and Wittels’ drums come together to make some delightfully listenable indie rock, shot through with a loneliness and melancholy that wouldn’t feel out of place on the soundtrack of some long-forgotten drama or sitcom from the ’70s.
Similarly, the emotions at work in “The Ballad” have a sincere power to them, recognizable to anyone who grew up in a family on the brink of divorce. Even if it’s ostensibly about “fox church” and speaking “the bird-bird,” the argument at the song’s climax feels legitimately heated; when Cassady cuts Rust off with a half-screeched “Shut your lying mouth!” it’s simultaneously both a joke and a moment of powerful emotion. That willingness to mix in real feelings with the jokes—whether in songs about disaffected trophy wives, hard-partying grandmas, or men in love with their own hair—is at the core of what made the band such a fun surprise for listeners who stumbled onto them. It’s not clear whether Cassady and Rust will continue with the project in the wake of Wittels’ death, but if not, the group’s back catalog stands as a testament to the fact that comedy nerds can still rock pretty hard.