Ellen Hardcastle is album number three by vlogger/entrepreneur/musician/general busybody Hank Green. The album is so intertwined with Green as a personality that it’s impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other. Green started the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers with his brother John, and over the past four years, the brothers have amassed a giant fanbase of self-proclaimed Nerdfighters (of which this blogger is proudly a member). The Green brothers and the Nerdfighters believe in liking (usually geeky) stuff for the sake of liking it, and this mentality is more than present in Green’s music.
For example, Ellen Hardcastle starts with “Strange Charm”, a chiptune influenced song about quarks. It’d be a poor opener if the song’s 8-bit beeps and bloops weren’t so catchy, and Green’s singing was any less unique, but it’s actually quite a charming song in the spirit of Bill Nye. In fact, two of Green’s songs draw upon Smart/Funny Guys Making Music of the past (er, and present). The iPhone/Droid ode “My Phone” doesn’t sound too removed from Weird Al original-material (in a good way), and the hyper sing-songy “The Worst News of 2009” brings Tom Lehrer to mind.
Musically, Green’s not afraid to go all over the map on Ellen Hardcastle. His default set-up is an acoustic guitar with optional keyboard or drum tracks, but there’s also the sugar-rushed electronica “Shake-A-Booty”, the ska-tastic “Brother From a Mother of a Last Name of Another Color” (BFAMOALNOAC), and a trio of pop-punk tunes to consider. Regardless of instrumentation, the production on Ellen Hardcastle is solid; the album can pull off the acoustic “Bad Day on Chat Roulette” and the Social Distortion-esque “What Would Captain Picard Do?” without losing any of its identity.
If Green didn’t inject his songs with his sense of fun and personality, Ellen Hardcastle would fall flat. His mile-a-minute vocal style makes every number bounce along (I’d love to see him cover “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”), and without fun lyrics, a song like “This Is Not Harry Potter” would never take off. Green succeeds in one of the best possible ways as a songwriter: he takes a ridiculous premise like a song about the Fermi Paradox, and not only makes it work, but gets you hooked.
There are essentially three types of songs on Ellen Hardcastle: the Education Song, the Geek Song, and the Hank Song. The weakest track on the album belongs to the Education Songs; “Phineas Gage” drags on too long without changing, but the rest of them are pretty strong. The Geek Songs (which take up a good chunk of the back half of the album) are probably the most creative and consistent in quality. The Hank Songs are home to two of my favorites on the album: “Shake-A-Booty”‘s lyrics might amount to “Be happy, dance!”, but damn if it isn’t a fun, shake-able song. Other favorite and possible best of the album is “Adult Female”, one of the most clever and endearing love songs of the past few years.
The pacing on Ellen Hardcastle is solid. Green puts his quirk (and quarks) upfront before picking up the pace at “Brother From a Mother of a Last Name of Another Color” and keeping it steady until “Bad Day on Chat Roulette”, which sets the tone for the record’s closing quarter of quieter, acoustic songs.
Overall, Ellen Hardcastle succeeds as a fun project for Green, and as an enjoyable listen. The songwriting is tight, the production is great, and most of the songs hit dead on. The only cons are a few uninteresting songs (the one-note “Makin’ Babies” feels like an obligatory Nerdfighteria shoutout, and “Amber Lamps” feels like an afterthought) and some of the hooks could be stronger. Green is also a niche artist; those outside of the Nerdfighter/Internet/Geek ring might feel like strangers listening to this album. But the pros far outweigh the cons, 4 out of 5 stars.
tl;dr: Don’t forget to be awesome, because Hank won’t. 4/5.