Thursday, February 9, 2012
The Space In Between Is the Place: The Music of Devo and The B-52's (Fragment Seven Is Unequal By All Quantifiable Measures)
In the history of rock and roll music, has there been a comeback story as heartwarming as the B-52's returning with Cosmic Thing? Has a band deserved to sell four million copies and have back-to-back Grammy-nominated Top 3 hits more than the B-52's? Conventional wisdom stated that it was impossible for them to recover from the loss of Ricky Wilson. The band members themselves may have at one time, however briefly, believed such as well.
Then they jumped back in the ring and sunset flipped everybody.
It was Keith Strickland's fault, really. He had by now completely abandoned the drums for the guit-fiddle, and the decision proved fortuitous, as jangly soundscapes owing more than a little to his late musical mentor's influence began flowing out, until he couldn't help but share them enthusiastically with his erstwhile bandmates. The flame thus born, the gang of once five now four reconvened and began jamming together, just like way back when (probably not too dissimilar a scene from that depicted on the album cover). Replete with renewed confidence and fresh tunes, the B's hired Don Was and Nile Rodgers to work their shiny shiny production magic (not as a team, mind you, although one tingles to think). Cosmic Thing sounds clean as palace marble, but nowhere near as heartless. The theme is warm reminiscence, as the members go wistful but never doleful, honoring their departed friend simply by being the band they were meant to be. None of the songs can be educed as sorrowful, and this is less avoidance of pain than assimilation of spirits. Just because you can't see someone, doesn't mean they aren't there with you.
"Cosmic Thing"--Best euphemism for booty ever? Maybe. "Biscuits," as heard in Digital Underground's "Doowutchyalike," is pretty good too.
"Cosmic Thing" kicks the parade off in sublime fashion from line one: "Gyrate it till you've had your fill/Just like a pneumatic grill!" Love to this day how Fred spaces out "pneumatic." But what about the ladies, those wigged wonders of warble? Oh the voice is still strong in each, but now those lustrous harmonies sparkle rather than sear.
"Dry County"--Sweet and warm biscuits washed down with a cold and sweaty soda. I bought Cosmic Thing the week of release--all of 12 at the time, I was--and I thought "Dry County" was just the bee's knees with extra cottage cheese. Goofy yet somehow riveting. Now, I regard it as goofy and enjoyable, but not unmissable. In other words, if Cosmic Thing is a party I just arrived at, I won't go out of the way to greet "Dry County" when I see it in the corner drinking punch. (But I will take a running leap at, say, "Channel Z." Big ol' hugs and all.)
The squonking music may do it in for most people, evocative as it is of a Dr. Seuss character in the throes of heatstroke. For me, it's Keith's wacked-out angel food cake vocals. The chorus absolutely works, though, at a Doozer-like level of dedication.
"Deadbeat Club"--Originally titled "There Is a River," which sounds far more fitting for Phil Collins than the B-52's, "Deadbeat Club" is an ode to the carefree days of salad in Athens, where the band and their peers wore nightgowns in broad daylight and danced to the music threaded in the wind while waiting for the streetlight to change. This is the closest the album gets to a mournful song, but thankfully "Deadbeat Club" avoids nostalgia, which is almost always a kiss of death for artists and was--lest we forget--a recognized medical condition in the 17th and 18th centuries. Then again, the American Psychiatric Association had homosexuality on the books as a mental disorder all the way up until 1973, so...fuck doctors.
Cindy and Kate save the vocal histrionics (such as they are) for the straightforward chorus, with some help from the deadpan club of Fred and Keith. Elsewhere, the duo is measured and enrapturing, stretching syllables and telling an extraordinary story. The "We were wi-i-ild girls" bridge vise-grips me every time. As does "Anyone we can/We're gonna find somethin'." I don't care if you belong to a club of just one, that line right there is real talk.
I only recently learned that Normaltown is an actual neighborhood in Athens. This whole time I thought they just made the place name up as a gentle jibe at the straight and narrows who couldn't make neither head nor hair of those "strange" kids.
"Love Shack"--Gay nightclubs, breeder weddings, seedy karaoke nights--"Love Shack" is inescapable. As the song that brought the B's back into the public eye, I respect the song forever. As an overlong Mr. Potato Song (the single edit is better than the original) it is one of the most divisive pop tracks of the past thirty years. I'll never forget the Spice Girls being asked by Rolling Stone what their most hated tune of all-time was, and the one that ended up marrying that football/soccer player replied, "'Love Shack.' I'd say it to their fucking face, I don't care." REBEL REBEL! Damn, trim the claws, kitty, 'fore ya hurt somebody. I get giddy thinking about what Fred Schneider would have said to any of the Spice Girls in their collective disgusting face.
"Love Shack" is so overplayed that its unique quality is now almost completely ignored. The verses are abnormally structured compared to most songs that were played on the radio not just in the late 1980s but in any decade. After the intro, with Fred and Cindy, the band firmly settled into a nice chicken scratch groove, we have verse one. Five lines in toto, Cindy starting it off and then being joined by Kate halfway through. Fred takes over with his auto braggadocio as the girls GPS it up behind him, until we hit the first instance of that hay-jumping chorus.
Verse two is eight lines: two for Fred, two for Kate, and Cindy singing both of her lines twice. Chorus, then verse three where Fred has a quartet of lines for us, including the "whole shack shimmies!" breather, after which everyone starts moving around and around and around and are you carsick yet? Kate and Cindy come back in to bookend Fred before Keith's mini-solo, which is just an excuse for everyone to frug. Fred repeats, with slight variation, his very first parts on the song, before the refrain hops back in and then dooooooooowwwwwwwn....dooooowwwwn. Okay, it ain't as cool as the "Rock Lobster"...anything, but "Love Shack" must be admired for its unpredictable momentum. (The only song in their canon comparable to it by this standard is "Devil In My Car," way back on Wild Planet.) This song was truly the result of a catch-as-catch-can jam by a band apart back together again just pleased as pickles to be making music together. Shit happens. Sometimes people yell "Tin roof! Rusted" and it doesn't mean anything other than they were having a ton o' fun. No one was trying to concoct a smash hit, 'cause only a mad alchemist would think this formula was can't-miss. And the B-52's are not mad. You grant that.
"Junebug"--Second-most notable nugget about "Junebug" is that it was used in a Target commercial, another thing the B's have in common with Devo. Most notable nugget, "Junebug" was the first song the band wrote after their hiatus. I love the infectious insect groove, but it's ultimately gormless pop. Is Fred trying to seduce a bug? I dunno.
"Roam"--The second smash hit, with lyrics courtesy of their old pal Robert Waldrop. (Is that a call-back to "Dirty Back Road" in the first verse, then?) Also popular for commercials. Just like "52 Girls" in that Kate and Cindy will command your complete attention for minutes using nothing but their natural voices. That last minute is kinda sorta heavenly.
Keith Strickland is no Ricky Wilson, and he shouldn't be. Ricky's playing had a jagged edge, a rawer tone, and while Keith sounds for lack of a better word "smoother" than his school chum ever was, he shares Wilson's ingenuity with the instrument. His guitar is a true partner with the girls here, an aid, an abettor.
"Bushfire"--Sex. Homo, hetero, all of it. In one not-neat shit-hot package. Kickin' up sawdust and saying the word "field" frequently, I approve!
"Channel Z"--The first single. Didn't set the world alight, but it's far better than "Love Shack" and just a bit superior to "Roam." Showcases the politcally/socially/ecologically-concerned B's, as all three take turns hurling crap at the mass media's fever for frivolity. Shit ain't changed.
Fred barks out, as he is wont to do, a litany of unpleasantries in the world then and today: toxic fog, "laser bombs," ozone holes and space junk. Wait, space junk? Wasn't that a Devo song? Well yeah, but that's a general term for debris in outer space. Fred actually says "space junk" three times in the song and the second time (2:47) he delivers it in direct imitation of Bob Mothersbaugh. That nasally tone is an unmissable mimic/tribute. Fuck yeah, Fred!
"Topaz"--Ah, a world without Channel Z. Topaz is visible, sure, but azure and cyan as well. Might be a little too much cyan, actually. Hmm. Kate and Cindy are fertility goddesses. Keith and Fred still the Deadpan Club back there. That flourish of synth and guitar when the "cities by the sea" come into view, wow....
"Follow Your Bliss"--Anti-climactic instrumental (well, the women do provide a couple choir practices) that always put me in mind of a trip to the grocery, pushin' the cart around, wishing things weren't so many calories. Sigh.
The CD version of Smooth Noodle Maps features a fold-out that shows the band members emerging from a computer simulation of Jupiter. Which is a cosmic thing, indeed. But where the B-52's went artistically and commercially right, the Spuds had their breathing apparatus malfunction and their satellite break apart and descend at a deadly pace back to Earth, where it hit some chick named Sally in an alley. Circle of life. See, Devo thought space was the place--maybe that literally riotous show they played with Sun Ra before making it big had something to do with it--but the B-52's knew that the space in between was far more crucial.
I heard once, and liked to believe, that the title refers to the texture of the human brain. Other sources cite a nutty mathematical system. I would research it more, but mediocrity only deserves so much of my time. Or yours, for that matter.
A Swedish proverb begs, "Love me when I least deserve it because that is when I really need it." When I listen to Smooth Noodle Maps, all I can think is, Man, I love Devo so much right now.
"Stuck In a Loop"--This is a Kim Wilde throwaway, you sons o' bitches. I wanna get stuck in a loop, I'll go read Artemis Fowl or watch an episode of Misfits.
"Post Post Modern Man"--My fella spud Patrick loves this track. Straight-facedly thinks that had it come earlier in their career, it would have been a fair smash. I think it has purge fluid leaking from its nose. Although Jerry and Mark singing together is always kinda cute. Jerry's all down in the canyon, Mark's all in the hot air balloon. They ain't no K & C Show, though.
"When We Do It"--Oh yes it's sexy sex time. Sexi luv? Shut yo' cupcake hole! Thank you Devo for taking the most fantastically fulfilling activity that can be enjoyed by two or more human beings at one time and strip it of everything that makes it fantastic and fulfilling. "When We Do It" will kill impending orgasms faster than the thought of a fully-clothed Ann Coulter. I can, after I've cleaned up the vomit and popped a breath mint, appreciate the theme of the track, the importance of mutual sexual empathy.
"Spin the Wheel"--Spaces the great potato-shaped wheel, once spun, will never land upon:
"Mountain Dew"--Cover of a folk ditty by Bonnie Dobson. Remember the version of Devo that did good cover songs?
"A Change is Gonna Cum"--Remember the version of Devo that did good songs? From Shout on they've just been a shitball rollin' down that hill, gathering greater momentum and more shit, building into a gigantic fecal reminder of how far they've wandered from the path they once traversed with equal dollops of intelligence, irreverence and passion. I mean, "cum'? Even Prince would have said "U R lame" for that one. What's sad is the only thoughtful lyric of the entire album can be found on this song: "Every in-between time looks like a perfect picture/It seems to last forever/Because it's standing still." That's good. Really good. Too good. I think it was "borrowed."
"The Big Picture"--If you, like me, believe in the possibility of alternate timelines where different versions of ourselves live out variations of our lives based on the decisions we did or did not make, you may understand "The Big Picture" as Gary Numan in a timeline where he had no talent, taste, or shame.
"Pink Jazz Trancers"--Are you trying to brainwash me, Devo? I thought you loved all the good spuds! Or has disillusionment turned us all into ninnies and/or twits in your eyes? Did someone clone Mark and Jerry and those clones have been writing and producing the last three albums? So much query!
"Jimmy"--Jimmy is a vituperative shithead. People who can accurately be described with such words tend to inspire good songs. I would not call "Jimmy" good, either as a song or person, but held up to rest of Smooth Noodle Maps, it comes off smelling like "Sunshine of Your Love."
I mean, it's funny. Which is important. If you're not gonna worry about making music that's shrewd, carnal, or challenging--and clearly Devo by 1990 had watched the ship sail, then torpedoed it--you may as well elicit a chuckle or two. I told you about Jimmy already. First sentence. Well, that asshole got his and somebody else's to boot! Jimmy won't ever beat his wife, torment his child, kick the dog, or torture his employees ever again, 'cause he is in a wheelchair and Devo don't care, which is convenient 'cause of the rhyming thing. Or maybe it's just Jerry who doesn't care. I mean who is he to speak for everyone else?
"Devo Has Feelings Too"--Y'all had talent once upon a time as well. Y'all once possessed the ability to discern between what made a song good and what made it bad. You understood the difference between a toasted bagel and a burned one, and that no amount of cream cheese could salvage the latter.
"The king's been dead/They chopped off his head in '63." Again with the JFK obsession.
"Dawghaus"--Please don't start off the song by barking.
Written and recorded too stultifyingly for me to even wail on uselessly about the willful misspelling. Bob1 pulls off some Sesame Street-style string yanks, but nothing can salvage this ugly Ohio terrier.
But, but...this guy is in the "dawghaus"! Courtesy of his woman! 'Cause he was out all night! I bet he used to party with Jimmy! Doesn't he know what happened to his bygone buddy? He's non-ambulatory and five dudes in ugly pastel suits could not be any less concerned. Why have you not realized by now that "Jimmy" is a metaphor for Devo's recording career?
As the eighties give way to the nineties, the B-52's and Devo are antipodes of each other. One group is riding massive success, the other sputtering out into museum-status.