It started with a book.
The Mr. T Experience--a band that I first started to get into in high school both because of their amazing band name and because they came up with one of my all time favorite song titles, â€œEven Hitler Had a Girlfriendâ€”have pretty much been on hiatus since 2004â€™s Yesterday Rules. In that time, the bandâ€™s frontman and sole original member, â€œDr. Frankâ€ Portman, has focused instead on his second career as the author of young adult fiction. In the time since the bandâ€™s last album, Portman has penned three YA novels: King Dork, Andromeda Klein, which takes place in the same universe as King Dork, but at a different time and following different characters, and most recently his direct sequel to King Dork, 2014â€™s King Dork Approximately.
When I volunteered to write the review of this album, I didnâ€™t know that it was a companion album to a novel. I was told that I could just write about the album and not worry about the book, but what can I say, Iâ€™m an overachiever, and I wanted to read the book to have a full understanding of the album, and when I found out that the book was a sequel and it actually meant reading two books, I wasnâ€™t deterred a bit.
First, I listened to the album before having read either book. Itâ€™s a wonderful album that combines big stadium rock with Mr. T Experienceâ€™s classic bubblegum pop punk to create something thatâ€™s somewhere halfway between The Ramones and AC/DC. While Mr. T. Experience may not have the popularity to draw the kind of crowds that some of these songs are built for, if they ever got a gig playing at Madison Square Garden, songs like â€œCinthya (with a Y)â€ and â€œGooey Glassesâ€ would work perfectly. My favorite song, without reading the books, was â€œHigh School is the Penalty for Transgressions Yet to Be Specifiedâ€ because of its ability to take the high school theme and stretch it out into something more universal: â€œOne day youâ€™ll graduate but you will find my friend/That high school never really ever ends./The haves will still be hounding the have-nots/But they smile at you while theyâ€™re hatching their plots.â€ (Cue photo of Donald Trumpâ€™s smug smile.) Another one that works especially well even without any knowledge of the books is the closer, â€œDown with the Universe,â€ whose very title takes teen angst to its logical extreme in one of the funniest tracks on the record.
Then I started reading the books. To call this album a companion piece to the second book, in particular, is highly inaccurate. Many of the songs are really related more to the first book than the second, and Portman knows this as 5 of the 12 songs on this album appeared as solo, acoustic demo tracks on the audiobook version of the first book. While the album is fantastic on its own, a lot of the songs are actually inside jokes from the novels. The novels follow the character Tom Henderson, a.k.a. King Dork, as he calls himself, a.k.a. â€œChi-Mo,â€ an unfortunate nickname given to him by bullies thatâ€™s short for â€œChild Molester,â€ but which plays a very important role in the novelâ€™s biggest plot twist. The book follows Tom and his best friend, Sam Hellerman, as they navigate the pitfalls of a high school where none of the teachers care and few of the students are good people, all while fighting an uphill battle in trying to turn their love of rock music into an actual band.
The album doesnâ€™t try to tell the story of the books. Rather, for the most part, the album compiles some of the songs that, in the book, Tom and Sam are said to have written in their band, which changes its band name almost every other page as our heroes are incredibly indecisive. If you think The Mr. T Experience is a funny band name, just wait until you hear how many funny band names Frank Portman has swimming around in his head. The novel gives us a sort of fictional behind-the-music so that we can see what prompted Tom and Sam to write these particular songs. If â€œThinking About Suicide?â€ sounds like a depressing song, rest assured that, in the book, the song is inspired by a suicide prevention flier from a school counselorâ€™s office that Sam and Tom like to laugh at for how over-the-top it is. While you could probably figure out what â€œI Wanna Ramone Youâ€ means from the context of the lyrics, itâ€™s funnier if you know that it comes from a joke in the book about an intentional misuse of the French verb â€œramonerâ€ which technically means â€œto scrub out or vigorously clean a chimney,â€ making â€œI Wanna Ramone Youâ€ the perfect double entendre for the novels' Ramones-loving characters (not to mention a fun play on The Ramonesâ€™ tendency to start song titles with â€œI Wannaâ€). I didnâ€™t realize that â€œOâ€™Brien is Tryin' to Learn to Talk Hawaiâ€™ianâ€ is a cover of a 99-year-old song until I started the second book, which uses lyrics from the song as its epigraph and cites its sources appropriately. Probably my favorite song on the album, after reading the books, is â€œGooey Glasses,â€ one of those great stadium rockers that references probably the best scene of the first book, and Iâ€™ll leave that to you to read the book and learn what the song means. Iâ€™ll also leave you to read the books to figure out what â€œa sex alliance against society with a robotâ€ refers to, as mentioned in â€œHigh School is the Penalty for Transgressions Yet to Be Specified.â€
As an artist, I totally understand the urge, if you dabble in multiple art forms, to pull from your work in one artform and transfer it over to the other. Dr. Frankâ€™s attempt to bring his 30-year-old pop punk band into his recent stint as a young adult author works brilliantly and makes for one of the most fun albums Iâ€™ve heard all year. I guess you could listen to it without reading the booksâ€”although for now I believe itâ€™s only becoming available as a free add-on when you purchase the paperback version of King Dork Approximately, which comes out on October 4thâ€”but if someday you can just buy the album alone and listen to it alone, I highly discourage you from doing so. I recommend reading the books, too, as the entire King Dork project is adorable as fuck. It also saves Dr. Frank from the trap that other pop-punk bands, like Blink-182 and My Chemical Romance, fall into in when they desperately want to write about being teenagers to appeal to that market despite being in their 30â€™s, their 40â€™s, or in Dr. Frankâ€™s case, their 50â€™s. Dr. Frank created a whole world of fictional characters, a world of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (with less sentimentality and more sarcastic humor) meets Catcher in the Rye (despite the fact that King Dork spends a lot of time in both books expressing his utter contempt for Catcher in the Rye), and constructed songs for that universe. It gives him a legitimate reason to be writing this material about high school and makes King Dork Approximately: The Album the perfect way to tie the whole, highly successful project together.
It started with a book.