The idea behind Borken Telephone is simple. Musician and comic artist Rock, Paper, Cynic (aka Peter Chiykowski) recorded a one-minute song called “Broken Telephone.” He then passed the recording onto Professor Shyguy, who listened to the song and then recorded his own one-minute version of the tune, and so on down the chain. The end result is the world’s first game of musical broken telephone, a concept that was strong enough to get a successful Kickstarter campaign off the ground in July.
The finished album is here eight months later, and it more than lives up to the potential of its premise. Though the title references the classic classroom communication game, Borken Telephone is in fact a complete solo project from Rock, Paper, Cynic (“Broken Telephone” is the closing song), with musical assists on several key tracks. The whole endeavor is upbeat and entertaining, delivering lighthearted indie rock with a humorous and nerdy bent. Despite Chiykowski’s moniker, the album is joyful rather than cynical, capturing Chiykowski’s love of music and his love of all things nerdy (most notably his love of binary).
It’s that sunny approach that makes Borken Telephone such a pleasure to listen to. Unlike much of the nerd rock oeuvre, which often mimics The Big Bang Theory and substitutes references for humor, Borken Telephone slipped past my jaded bullshit detectors largely because it never feels like anything is forced. The opening run – which includes “Hello N.S.A.,” “One Shell, Two Shell, Red Shell, Blue Shell,” and “Geeks in Love” – is an enthusiastic three-song gauntlet that’s by turns heartfelt and hilarious, while the rest of the album features consistently excellent musicianship and wordplay. Chiykowski delivers a dazzling array of shameless and clever puns, with notable assists from Kirby Krackle and Adam WarRock (“One Shell, Two Shell”) and The Doubleclicks (“Geeks in Love”). Geeks are the target audience, but you don’t need to be familiar with the source material to appreciate the lyrics.
The rest of the album doesn’t quite reach those elevated heights, and the quality dips slightly on the B-side, with deep cuts that aren’t as catchy as the opening salvo. However, the production values are superb and there are still plenty of highlights scattered throughout the record. “The Philosophical Zombie Slayer” features a string of liberal arts name drops that rivals Monty Python’s “Philosopher’s Song,” while “I Don’t Need You (I’ve Got Netflix)” is a painfully honest love song for the on-demand generation (sample lyric: “You think you’re pretty buff/But I found a better buffer”).
As for the song that gives the album its name, “Broken Telephone” is an 18-minute rollercoaster that blends 16 different flavors into an unexpectedly coherent track. The quality of the individual segments varies, with some that would stand up reasonably well as standalone songs and others that would probably be annoying when listened to out of context.
Fortunately, that context makes the project. While the first few tracks hew relatively close to Chiykowski’s original, the whole project gets blown apart once the first line changes, and blown up again once the rappers get hold of it and begin adding syllables to fit the rhyme schemes. At that point it becomes an exercise in word association rather than repetition. It’s a blast to follow the phrases and themes that resonate through the song, making it a fascinating and playful musical experiment.
All of which is to say that both halves of Borken Telephone are well worth a listen. It’s a sincere and amusing nerd rock record that feels like a celebration rather than a quiz, a reminder that geeky things can still be fun when you stop taking them too seriously.